By Alan Caruba
My Picks of the Month
A book that has proven so provocative that even Congress is currently trying to fashion a re-write of laws applying to its members is Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich off Inside Stock tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism that would Send the Rest of Us to Prison ($26.00, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Its author, Peter Schweizer, is the William J. Casey Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a resume as long as your arm. The service his book provides is one that the Washington, D.C. corps of journalists has largely ignored for years in what Schweizer calls “an incestuous relationship” based on the fact that journalists fear losing access to the members of Congress if they dared to expose the larceny that takes men and women elected to office go from moderate income to owning millions. The book describes the process and names names when it comes to the graft involved that includes insider trading, conflicts of interest, and kickbacks. This goes well beyond mere bribery, something regarding as rather old-fashioned at this point. Since Congress has exempted itself from laws that would send others doing the same thing to jail, the process has been completely legal. “Unfair, unethical, and immoral—but legal. By leading a team that examined the records Congress critters are required to make public, albeit a year after the transactions, Schwiezer was able to put together a book that is an astonishing revelation of self-enrichment at the expense of the public they are said to serve.
The Tea Party movement in America was a spontaneous response to legislation passed during the first two years of the Obama administration to aroused dispute and rejection, the best known of which is “Obamacare.” An interesting new book, Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot by Joseph Cummins ($18.95, Quirk Press) tells the story, not only of the famed Boston Tea Party, but of others in the American colonies from Philadelphia to New York and other cities. It offers a thorough explanation why the British imposed taxes on tea, the role in played in the lives of the colonists, and how the taxes, one that followed the Sugar and Stamp Acts, galvanized Americans of that era to resist Great Britain and ultimately declare their independence. It is an exciting rendition of the people and events that sparked the American Revolution.
Some books are just so extraordinary that one marvels at the intelligence and creativity they represent. This is the case with Theodore Gray’s Elements Vault: Treasures of the Periodic Table ($39.95, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers), a slip-cased box of wonders based on an earlier book, “The Elements”, by Popular Science columnist, Theodore Gray in 2009. The book eventually ended up on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list and thousands of people discovered the genius of the periodic table, listing all the chemical and mineral elements of which our planet is composed. It was created by a Russian chemist, Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev. Gray’s new book, co-authored with Simon Quellen Field, is a response to the readers who wanted to learn even more about the elements, to touch and feel some of them if possible. It is possible because the book contains samples including pure gold, silicon, boron, europium and zirconium. Throughout the book are 23 important historical and supplementary documents related to the elements and the field of chemistry. It is an extraordinary experience enhanced by many stunning photos by Gray. This book should earn a shelf of awards but the biggest reward will be for the reader who delves into it.
Another large format book is the Lights of Mankind: The Earth at Night as Seen from Space ($32.50, Lyons Press, imprint of Globe Pequot Press), edited by L. Douglas Keeney. At night the Earth from space is a two-billion kilowatt map of civilization and the cities that are lighted to reveal where electricity keeps its cities active long after the sun has set on them. Japan is a garland of lighted islands in the Pacific, Egypt is mostly in darkness except for the Nile that snakes through its desert, bejeweled in light. These are photos, taken by NASA’s astronauts in a program that the current administration has ended. Any aficionado of space exploration will enjoy this remarkable tribute to the only planet in our galaxy that not only supports life, but is illuminated by it.
You might not think concrete is a particularly interesting topic, but you would be wrong. In Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Common Man-Made Material ($26.00, Prometheus Books) Robert Courland provides a lively history to a material that we use for buildings, bridges, dams, and road. It is everywhere man lives and works, and it has been around for a very long time. King Herod of Judea, a major builder, as well as Roman Emperor Hadrian, and others all relied on concrete, so it’s history is intertwined with the rise of civilization. In America, Thomas Edison once owned the largest concrete plant in the world. Buildings like the Coliseum and the Pantheon are testimony to the skill of ancient architects and builders. The secrets of concrete were lost for nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, but were rediscovered in the late 18th century. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the use of concrete exploded. Anyone with an interest in history will enjoy this book.
Now that the holidays are over many are thinking about their cooking and baking skills, often to either begin or to improve on them. For them there’s Kitchen on Fire: Mastering the Art of Cooking in 12 Weeks (Or Less) by Olivier Said and Chef MikeC. ($35.00, Da Capo Press) and Baking with the Cake Boss by Buddy Valastro ($30.00, Free Press). The former book was written by the founders and instructors of the acclaimed Berkeley cook school of the same name and it prepares the reader to take on any recipe in any cookbook and even to invent new recipes. This is a book about cooking principles which one can apply to any meal. Extensively illustrated, it is a good book for the new bride or anyone who has not learned the fundamentals of cooking. This is a great way to become a master chef in the comfort of one’s own home. The latter book takes its name from the author’s popular television show, The Cake Boss, and offers “100 of Buddy’s Best Recipes and Decorating Secrets.” All manner of delicious treats plus great ways to decorate cakes and other baked goods are described and illustrated with mouth-watering photos.
There is considerable distrust these days of journalism and journalists these days. Thus, The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors by Matthew Winkler, Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg News ($45.00, Bloomberg Press, an imprint of Wiley) would be a good investment for any journalist. I don’t expect the general public to plunk down that kind of money to learn the rules of financial reporting, but I do think that journalists, students, business professionals and anyone who wants to write about money should make the investment. Winkler’s approach is pragmatic and stresses the ethical standards we expect of today’s journalists. As he says, there is no such thing as being first if the news is wrong. He advises that a journalist explain the role of money in all its forms to reveal the true meaning of the news. At a time when the news is filled with reports about unemployment, huge deficits and debt, the threat to the Euro, this is a very timely, important book.
The election of President Obama spurred the increased sale of handguns, so if you are among those who have made such a purchase or possess handguns, I recommend The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills by Robert Campbell ($27,99, Zenith Press, softcover). The manual provides instructions for taking care of your firearms, from cleaning to general maintenance. It demystifies the sometimes confusing array of ammunition available in every caliber, and provides the basics on firearm safety, marksmanship, competitive shooting, hunting, and person protection. The author is a former peace officer with twenty years on the job. He has published more than six hundred articles.
Memoirs, Autobiographers, Biographies, Etc
Many Americans are looking back at the Reagan era with fondness these days, remembering how he handled economic problems, the threat of Soviet-style Communism, and the other great issues of his time. John A. (Jack) Svahn was a close adviser of Reagan, serving him during both of his terms as the Governor of California and as President. In that capacity he was the a Commissioner of Social Security, Undersecretary of Health and Human Services, and as the U.S. Commissioner to the Canal Alternatives Commission in Panama. He has written “There Most Be a Pony in Here Somewhere”: Twenty Years with Ronald Reagan ($18.95, Langdon Street Press, softcover) The memoir blends humor with a serious, candid look at both the political and personal moments spent as part of Reagan’s inner circle. He writes that Reagan was an optimist, a man who always saw the glass as half full, not half empty. This book is an important contribution to our knowledge and insight regarding Reagan and will surely please his legion of admirers.
The world has moved on since the horrendous 7.0 earthquake in January 2010 destroyed its capitol city and surrounding areas. In Rubble: The Search for a Haitian Boy ($l6.95, Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, softcover.) Sandra Marquez Stathis who had lived and worked in Haiti for four years as a human rights observer in the 1990s, tells of her return to search for Junior Louis, an unforgettable boy she had met when he was seven years old and homeless. He was like a son to her and she was determined to find out if he had survived. Her story is not just his story, but a story of Haiti, and a very compelling one. It is only natural to give scant attention to events occurring in far-off lands, but So Far to Run: The Memoir of Liberian Refugee by Louise Geesedah Barton ($l3.95, Bascom Hill Publishing Group, softcover) is quite extraordinary given that Liberia was established on the African coast as a place to which slaves could return from their captivity in America. At the age of seven Louise became a domestic servant in Monrovia. She had a thirst for knowledge, but just as she was entering collage, Liberia was overrun by deadly rebels, forcing her to flee for her life. Thousands died in the conflict and she spent the next ten years on the run, much of it on foot, through two countries and escaping to a third by motoring over 70 miles in a small boat through the high seas. She currently lives in Atlanta where she now is an advocate for those who remain refugees, unable to return to their homes. We tend to forget that there is plenty of poverty right here in America.
Sandra’s Story: It’s Not Gonna Be a Very Good Day by Garrett Mathews ($14.95, Plugger Publishing, softcover) follows a year in the life of Sandra, a fifth grader who lives in a $200 a month apartment with holes in the wall and mice in the ceiling. A retired columnist of the Evansville, Indiana Courier & Press, Matthews tells of being asked to speak to Sandra’s class and, in the process, learns that many of the boys and girls had never been to a mall, a museum, or a baseball game. He began to take three or four at a time to these places. It was an eye-opening experience for Mathews and his book reminds us that many children in America are living in poverty. The book is filled with events that will touch your heart and open your eyes. Bruce Farrell Rosen is a very talented writer who shares the same publisher as William Soroyan, Laurence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsburg, but he is no hippie. He has written If You Ever Need Me, I Won’t Be Far Away ($18.50, Alma Rose Publishing, softcover). It is a classic memoir, drawing on his life and it is dedicated to his mother who was clearly an extraordinary person, a psychic , and a family of fairly unique, if flawed individuals. Tolstoy said that “All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This memoir is testimony to that. Rosen tells us of his life, his family, his marriage, et cetera, but he does so quite movingly and you might just, like looking in a mirror, see someone you recognize.
There is a growing mythology about the 1960s as a decade of drugs, anti-war protests, the assassinations of Kennedy and King. Among the minor players was Ed Sanders who became a counterculture icon. Fug You ($26.99, Da Capo Press) is his story and, for someone who played such a small role in that decade’s events and dedicated himself to legalizing marihuana, it is a hefty tome. Sanders ran the Peace Eye Bookstore and founded a folk-rock group called the Fugs. He came in contact with some real movers and shakers of the era such as Allan Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and William S. Burroughs. Time has passed him by, but it can’t be said he didn’t live an interesting life. This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Bannigan ($26.99, Da Capo Press) is a biography of musician Dave Grohl, a key figure in bands that included Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Queens of the Stone Age. The ups and downs of Grohl’s life will no doubt be of interest to rock fans, including his reaction to Curt Cobain’s suicide made him put aside his career, but he was drawn back in when Tom Petty asked him to play drums with the Heartbreakers on a Saturday Night Live session. He has known great success and being homeless, so the biography is quite a ride since the 1980s.
In a delightful memoir Joann Puffer Kotcher put her values on the line when, fresh out of the University of Michigan, a year of teaching, she became an American Red Cross Donut Dolly in Korea, later setting up four duty stations in Vietnam where she visited the troops from the Central Highlands to the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea to the Cambodian border. She tells her story in Donut Dolly: An America Red Cross Girl’s War in Vietnam ($24.95, University of North Texas Press). This is a unique, personal view of the war, recorded in a journal she kept during her tour. And it wasn’t just handing out donuts. She was once abducted, dodged an ambush in the Delta, and experienced that war in a way that most memoirs do not tell. It is an inspiring story of the men who go to war and of a woman who put her life on the line to bring a measure of cheer when they did. Years ago as a child, I had the opportunity to see and hear Eleanor Roosevelt, then in her later years in the wake of World War II and the beginnings of the United Nations. She had been the First Lady for thirteen years and had redefined the role. In Eleanor Roosevelt’s Life of Soul Searching and Self-Discovery ($19.95, Flash History Press, Paoli, PA, softcover) Ann Atkins tells her remarkable story, highlighting her role in championing African-Americans, Jews, and women. FDR said she was his eyes and ears as she traveled to the front lines of the Pacific and throughout the nation. She was much more. She was his conscience, urging him to accept the changes occurring nationwide and worldwide. Rather than accept society’s rules, she challenged them and, in the process, led a meaningful, purposeful, and successful life.
To Your Health
Parents have lots of questions about maintaining their children’s health and happily Nutrition: What Every Parent Needs to Know is now out in his second section from the American Academy of Pediatrics ($14.95, softcover), edited by William H. Dietz, M.D. and Loraine Stern, M.D. Both have impressive resumes and the book is a complete guide regarding nutritional health from birth through adolescence. It includes standards of weight and height, eating disorders, allergies, and concerns about food safety. The new edition has been updated since it was first published a decade ago. The editors stress that teaching children healthy eating habits is an on-going activity and advises on how to allow for individual preferences, as well as the importance of shared mealtimes that are stress and guilt-free.
Anti-Aging Cures: Life Changing Secrets to Reverse the Effects of Aging by Dr. James Forsythe ($25.99, Vanguard Press) will surely interest anyone who wants to retain their youthful looks, energy, and lifestyle. A foreword by Suzanne Somers says “The key to youth, good health, and vitality as we age comes from our body’s master hormone, human growth hormone. By rejuvenating the master hormone gland using a range of safe and natural biostimulators, as this book shows, we can improve the quality and duration of the human lifespan.” Since my own knowledge of such matters is slim, I can only say that it appears to provide a useful body of information, but since I am also in my seventies, I have little doubt that, one way or the other, one’s body is going to age despite one’s best efforts. I rely on a full range daily of vitamins and minerals and would certainly recommend them. The author devotes attention to those that work best with regard to the aging process.
Wars have always played a role in history and their potential continues to threaten peace. Several books regarding various aspects of war reflect the ongoing interest in this topic.
Airmen will enjoy two books devoted to former aircraft. The Douglas DC-3 Dakota and the North American F-86 Sabre are subjects of an “Owner’s Workshop Manual.” The former was written by Paul and Louise Blackah and the latter by Mark Linney ($28.00 each, Zenith Press). The Douglas DC-3 revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Tough, reliable, and easy to operate, it played a crucial role in World War II. The F-86 was the first operation Allied swept-wing transonic jet fighter of the post-war era that fought with distinction in the Korean War where it was pitted against the Soviet MIG-15. Both books are sure to please those who flew them and anyone interested in military aircraft.
Science, Real and Fake
The vast global warming fraud, perpetrating since the 1980s, has caused a lot of people to be turned off by claims said to be based on scientific investigation and findings. Suffice to say the alleged data supporting global warming, now called climate change, was found to be utterly corrupt. So naturally, along comes John Grant’s book, Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War against Reality ($25.00, Prometheus Books). Unfortunately, it is just Grant’s reality as he continues to rail against “deniers” of the discredited “science”. The book is one long rant against what he regards as “unscientific” ideas regarding a wide range of topics. Suffice to say there is no such thing as a “consensus” among scientists because science exists to be both challenged and expanded with new findings. The book is essentially rubbish. Caveat emptor.
Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination by Paul A. Trout ($26.00, Prometheus Books) is an evocative exploration of the origin and function of storytelling, based on thousands of years in which our human predecessors had to cope with predatory animals who thought then and now that we were a tasty meal. The mythology that emerged from this served as a warning about them and responded to our visceral fears of them that exist to this day. It has manifested itself in literature, including children’s fairytales, and in modern movies in which fantastical creatures threaten humanity. It has shaped human culture and readers will find this an interesting book.
Novels, Novels, Novels
So many novels—hardly a day goes by that I do not receive an email request to review a novel or two. Many increasingly are self-published and stories of the success their authors have found as ebooks now abound. The publishing scene is changing, but this reviewer still prefers what I call “dead tree” books, the traditional book one can hold in one’s hands without worrying if the battery will die.
Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier, the author of the acclaimed “Night Train to Lisbon” ($26.00, Grove Press) is surely worth celebrating. It is an exploration of grief, a profound story of a man struggling to cope with the death of his wife and the impact it has on his life. Phillipp Perlmann is a noted linguist. Scheduled to speak at a gathering of international academics in a seaside town near Genoa, he struggles with the text of the keynote presentation until he realizes he can produce nothing. His confidence has deserted him and, desperate, he decides to plagiarize the work of a Russian colleague who is not able to attend the gathering. But Leskov unexpected arrival is suddenly announced and Perlmann panics. He contemplates even more drastic measures. Deeply emotional and intellectual novels like this are a rare occurrence. Italy is the setting for Joe Costanzo’s new novel, Calabria to be specific. In Restoration ($15.95, Charles River Press, softcover) Stephano Strazzi, an Italian-American from the fiction town of Roccamonti returns to recapture his memories of being raised there before his family immigrated to America. He quickly falls under its spell and, in the process of trying to help restore a medieval church, he finds himself in the midst of an old vendetta that erupts with frightening consequences. Constanzo was born in Pedivigliano and draws on the wellspring of his own life to create a compelling story that reflects both the enchantment and the passions of Italy. A veteran journalist, he displays a fine eye for detail and as a novelist he adds to his reputation as an excellent storyteller.
The American West is the setting for Richard S. Wheeler’s The Richest Hill on Earth ($25.99, Forge) as he turns is well-established storytelling talent to a tumultuous time in Montana history when the copper kinds battled for riches, glory, and control of Butte, the fledging government of the then-new State. Caught up in the struggle are the miners, their wives and children, journalists, and even psychics, all trying to make their fortune in the late 1890s. Several memorable characters play out their part in the struggle, from newspaper editor John Fellowes to Marcus Daly, an Irish immigrant of humble origins who rose to create the Anaconda Copper Mining Copper and his political rival, William Andrews Clark who bought a seat in the U.S. Senate, and Augustus Heinze who tried to steal the mines using lawyers and bribed judges, only to be crushed by the Rockefellers. This is fictionalized history, but it is also a very entertaining look at the real story behind the struggles that hinged on wealth and power. When it comes to westerns, novels that evoke a fabled period, few do it better than Jim Best. His latest is Murder at Thumb Butte ($12.95, Wheatmark, Tucson, AZ, softcover) and I guarantee that you will also want to read The Shopkeeper and Leadville. These are part of a “Steve Dancy” series and, in the case of “Murder at Thumb Butte”, it is the spring of 1880 and Dancy has traveled to Prescott, Arizona to gain control of a remarkable invention. He has barely unpacked when he learns that his friend, Jeff Sharp, has been arrested for a midnight murder and Dancy launches an investigation to find who really did it. The problem is, the whole town of Prescott wanted him dead! He turns to another old friend, Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to sort out the suspects and find the real killer before Sharp ends up swinging from the gallows. Best is best at dialogue and his novels move along at a swift pace with some of the best dialogue you’ll find. Nothing fancy, but it reflects real people in real situations. Treat yourself to one or all three of the series.
Murder mysteries are a favorite genre in fiction and D.C. Brod delivers a good one in Getting Lucky (24.95, Tyrus Books) with the story of a freelance writer who is hired to finish one of the stories written by a young reporter killed in a hit-and-run accident. In the process she uncovers shady Illinois land deals. At the same time she is trying to come up with enough money to keep her mother in an assisted living facility. Conflict of various kinds is at the heart of the story that moves along at a satisfying pace. At timely as today’s headlines regarding illegal aliens, Craig McDonald, an Edgar Award nominee, takes us to New Austin, Ohio in El Gavilan ($24.95, Tryus Books) where the locals are struggling with waves of undocumented workers who exert tremendous pressure on schools, police and city services. Three very different kinds of cops scramble to maintain control and impose order, but the rape-murder of a Mexican-American woman triggers a brutal chain of events that threaten to leave no survivors. You will keep turning the pages in a story filled with shifting alliances and circumstances.
A finalist for Germany’s prestigious Friedrich Glauser Prize for Best Crime Novel, Morgue Drawer Four by Jutta Profit ($14.95, Amazon Crossing) is one of several new softcover novels worth reading. It is a change of pace blending a witty genre-bending fusion of hard-boiled crime fiction and a comic ghost story that takes place in cosmopolitan Cologne’s seamy underbelly, a hidden world of gangsters, hustlers, and its red light district. A mismatched pair of impromptu detectives is at the center of the story. One is the ghost of a recently murdered career criminal seeking justice and the other is a quiet, unassuming coroner with the blessing or curse of being able to communicate with the deceased! This is a quirky, well-paced, and very entertaining story. A very different time and place is the setting for an Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg ($15.00, Penguin, softcover) in her debut as a novelist. It is 1830 and Neil McKenzie has accepted a post on the islands of St. Kilda, an isolated archipelago off the coast of Scotland. He is there to minister to a small community of islanders. Joining him is his pregnant wife, Lizzie. He is there to test his own faith against the old pagan ways of the islanders who live in squalor. The result is that his faith, marriage, and their sanity is tested in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty. Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein and Erica Ferencik gives us Dr. Astra Nathanson in Repeaters ($14.95, Waking Dream Press, Framingham, MA, softcover) and the question must be asked, why are women so good at writing stories that scare the pants off you, have you checking the locks on the doors, and keeping the lights on to fend off the dark? I am not giving away any secrets by telling you that the “repeaters” are the murdered among us, forced to repeat their lives until they find someone to love and thus granted eternal peace. Failing that, they bear the scars of the manner in which they were murdered in past lives. This is one scary story that readers who like their thrills bloody will love.
In today’s economy with headlines such as the collapse of a major hedge fund, bailed out banks, and famed media moguls, Richard Wanderer has authored The Holiday Party ($15.95, Two Harbors Press, softcover) that features a high-powered media mogul holding a dark secret, a publisher with a belief in the supernatural, and an assistant who no longer wants to assist. The result is a novel of corporate greed that leaps off its pages. Adam Gladstone is an heir to the family media empire and, with his brother, is running the business like a family. Meanwhile, mogul Daniel Davenport’s mistress is tired of being his concubine and assistant, and wants to take over the Gladstone umpire for herself, not Daniel. The author, a member of the California Bar, brings his experience working in the advertising departments of major magazines and newspaper publishing companies to good use in this novel that rings true as it explores the machinations of greed and betrayal.
Fans of short fiction will enjoy Geoff Schmidt’s Out of Time ($14.95, University of North Texas Press, softcover) a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. A debut collection, it is a meditation on meaning and mortality. In his stories, vengeful infants destroy and rebuilt the world, rival siblings and their mother encounter witches and ghosts, along with others, all of whose time is running out. This is definitely a very different literary cup of tea!
That’s it for January as we all embark on a tumultuous year in which people and parties are pitted against one another for the future of the nation. Tell your family, friends, and coworkers about Bookviews.com, the most eclectic monthly report on news fiction and non-fiction. And come back in February for more!
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
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