Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bookviews - September 2012

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

If there is one book a voter should read before they go to the polls in November, it is Dr. Paul Kengor’s The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis—The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor ($27.00, Threshhold, a division of Simon and Schuster). Many of the mysteries of the decisions the President has made since taking office become clear in the light this book sheds on one of the most formative persons in Obama’s life. At the invitation of his grandfather, Davis was asked to mentor the adolescent and teenaged Obama during his youth in the 1970s, in Hawaii. Frank Marshall Davis was a member of the Communist Party USA from about 1943 and dedicated to the success of Stalin’s Soviet Union. As Dr. Kengor notes, “He felt a connection to Frank that he painfully concedes he was unable to find in his mother, father, stepfather, grandfather, grandmother, siblings or anyone else who comprised his origins and life journey.” To hide Davis’ true identity, Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from my Father”, refers to him as “Frank” some twenty times by name and as a friend of his family. Dr. Kengor is the author of “Dupes”, a book about the way the Communist Party and its Soviet managers misled Americans, some of whom became secret agents and sympathizers holding positions of power in the FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations. One cannot understand the history of that era without reading “Dupes.” In a similar fashion, one cannot understand Obama without reading his biography of Frank Marshall Davis

All things Greek seems to be a trend this month. I am happy to note that Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning book, The Swerve: How the World Began Modern ($16.95, W.W. Norton, softcover) is now available in a softcover edition. It is the story of the discovery of “On the Nature of Things”, a philosophical epic written circa 50 BC by a Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius and the story as well of Poggio Bracciolini who, in 1417, found the book in a German monastery and made it possible for its views to influence the leaders of the Renaissance and many others including our own Thomas Jefferson. It is a visit to a time seven centuries ago that was, in turn, influenced by the book written five centuries earlier. Anyone who loves history in general and the history of ideas in particular will love this book. Serendipitously, Michael K. Kellogg’s The Greek Search for Wisdom ($28.00, Prometheus Books) has also been published. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of Western philosophy was “but a series of footnotes to Plato.” It is a remarkable story of how the Greek philosophers, poets, dramatists, and historians left their mark on our world as the author looks at ten outstanding examples of Greek wisdom and provides portraits of the men who contributed to it. I recommended Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad when it was first published by the Free Press and I am pleased to report that is now available in paperback ($15.99). Tolstoy called it a miracle and Goethe said it astonished him. The story of Achilles and Patroclus, Hector and Priam, has dazzled readers for 2,700 years. Mitchell’s translations of classics from Gilgamesh to the poetry of Rilke are wonders in themselves, selling thousands of copies, and this one is filled with energy and simplicity, grace, and the pulsing rhythms of Homer’s original text.

Iran is very much in the news and has been since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Its declared enemies have been the United States and Israel. At this writing, it very much looks like there will be a military action to thwart its intended objective of acquiring nuclear weapons. As such, we read a lot about the ravings of his leaders, the supreme leader, an ayatollah, and the clownish Mamoud Ahmadinejad, its president. Jamie Maslin, a travel writer, though warned against going to Iran, hitchhiked his way there and, in Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran ($16.95, Skyhorse Publishing, softcover) we learn about the people of Iran who, it turns out, pretty much hate the authoritarian government that holds them in its grip through terror. A Brit, he is warmly welcomed by ordinary Iranians who introduce them to the many ways they defy the regime, where Christian churches are national heritage sites, where alcohol is sold on the black market and, in the process, takes us into an Iran few in the West even know exists. It is a reminder that it is not the Iranian people who are our enemy. It is the fanatical Islamic regime that holds them prisoner in their own nation.

The subject of the scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church has been in the news for many years now and Dr. Angela Senander, an associate professor of theology at Merrimack College in the Archdiocese of Boston, has written Scandal: The Catholic Church and Public Life ($14.95, Liturgical Press, softcover) that Catholics and others will find of great interest. It arrives as the Church will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council in October and a special “Year of Faith” called for by the Pope. And it arrives as the Church in America finds itself in conflict with the Obama administration over aspects of Obamacare that require its institutions to act against its fundamental belief in the sacredness of human life. “From political life to higher education to healthcare,” writes Dr. Senander, “the term ‘scandal’ has often served as a conversation-stopper among Catholics and the larger public. I hope this book will reverse that dynamic—and turn reflection about scandal into a conversation-starter.” The best cure for a problem is to shine light upon it.

For fans of the utterly bizarre, I recommend you pick up a copy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not: Download the Weird ($28.95, Ripley Publishing), ample proof that people are the strangest creatures on Earth. This large format, coffee table book filled with pages that are extravagantly illustrated with photos. There’s one of a 14 year old girl with a tongue that measures three-and-a-half inches (you have to see it to believe it). The pages devoted to parasites from tapeworms to ticks will gross you out and there are too many other strange things that, no doubt, will provide hours of fun. Matt Lamb has authored Dead Strange ($12.99, Zest Books, softcover) that offers “the bizarre truths behind 50 world-famous mysteries.” In a short, entertaining book he looks at everything from the Big Bang theory to the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot to alien abductions and crop circles. This is a fun way to learn about the common myths and claims that people either believe or disbelieve. Lamb comes down on the side of commonsense and facts in every case.

I am the very antithesis of the environmental movement because I concluded long ago it was not about the environment but rather a means to attack our economic system, our use of energy, and an obstacle to growth. That said, Charlotte Gill, the author of Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe ($16.95, Greystone Books, softcover) has written an interesting story of a woman who has spent twenty years working as a tree-planter. While I disagree with her views on the timber industry, I admire her devotion to trees and to replacing those cut down to meet our need for wood in all its manifestations, not the least of which is shelter. The author is a skilled writer and is passionate about her subject, having planted a million trees. Her story will no doubt please many who share her views.

September is the month youngsters return to school and one of the best books you can give a student age 8 and up is The World Almanac® for Kids 2013 ($13.99, World Almanac Books, softcover). The Almanac chronicles the highlights of 2012 with items about its notable people, places and events, alongside of lots of new, fascinating facts. It is a great homework helper, reference, and is unfailingly entertaining. Every page is a marvel of design, using all manner of art and photography as it runs the gamut of topics that include the world’s nations, technology and computers, energy, animals, music and dance, movies and television. Any young reader with an interest in the world will benefit greatly from this book.

The Subject is Food

Thomas Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence, was a man of many interests and one of them was food. He found American food to be rather bland and, when he was asked by Congress in May 1784 to negotiate with European powers, he choose to live in Paris and, in the process, to amass as much knowledge of French cuisine as possible. He was aided in this by James Hemings, the brother of his slave and lover, Sally Hemings, who joined him and studied under the great chefs of Paris in return for gaining his freedom. The story is told in Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee ($19.95, Quirk Books) and for anyone who loves fine dining and wine, it will prove a real delight. Jefferson found time to study agriculture and winemaking while living in France and when the two men returned, they brought with them champagne, designs for pasta presses, seeds, cheeses, and—yes—crème brulee.

I love barbeque and, if you do as well, you will surely enjoy Bob Devon’s The Complete Wood Pellet Barbeque Cookbook ($17.95, Square One Publishers, softcover), a comprehensive guide filled with tips, tricks, and recipes for wood pellet grill users. Starting with the basics, the book takes one chapter by chapter into topics that include spice blends, marinades, and sauces to maximize the flavors of beef, chicken, pork, fish, turkey, and more. This lifts grilling beyond franks and burgers and opens up a whole world of dining pleasure. From the same publisher comes The Ultimate Allergy-Free Snack Cookbook by sisters Judi and Shari Zucker ($15.95, Square One Publishers, softcover) and it will prove welcome by the more than twelve million people diagnosed with food allergy problems; the majority of whom are children under the age of 18 and, for them, many parents are preparing their own snacks. This duo have been writing cookbooks since they were 17 and this latest contains more than a hundred kid-friendly recipes that will satisfy their love of snacks and provide a healthy alternative.

My late Mother, Rebecca, taught haute cuisine for more than three decades and was an internationally recognized authority on wine. She used to say “You are what you eat.” She read widely about nutrition. She would have enjoyed Dr. William J. Walsh’s new book, Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain ($29.95, Skyhorse Publishing). It is about a nutrient therapy system that postulates that nutrient imbalances can alter brain levels of key neurotransmitters, disrupt gene expression of proteins and enzymes, and cripple the body’s protection against environmental toxins. These imbalances, says Dr. Walsh, express themselves as behavioral disorders, autism, and even Alzheimer’s disease. If the nutrient deficiency can be identified then a drug-free therapy can be initiated to correct the imbalances. It makes a lot of sense to me and if you are looking for answers to behavioral problems in yourself or others you know, this book may hold the key to solving them.

History of the Wild West

The old West, a relatively brief period at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, nonetheless exerts a grip on the American imagination as no other period. It has been the subject of countless films and, of course, books. There are historians who focus on the era and, in particular, the colorful, if deadly, train robbers and others.

We can thank the University of North Texas Press for keeping their memory alive. Three new books provide hours of pleasure with The Deadliest Outlaws: The Ketchum Gang and the Wild Bunch by Jeffrey Burton ($24.95, softcover), He Rode with Butch and Sundance: The Story of Harvey ‘Kid Curry’ Logan by Mark T. Smokov ($29.95), and The McLaureys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary by Paul Lee Johnson ($29.95).

After Tom Ketchum was sentenced to death for attempting to hold up a railway train, his attorneys argued that the penalty was cruel and unusual for such a crime. After the appeal failed he became the first and only thief to be executed for the crime. When hanged in 1901, his head was torn away by the rope as he fell from the gallows. Born near the fringe of the Texas frontier, he was orphaned at age nine and raised by older brothers. He became a ranch hand and trail driver, murdered a man, and fled. After returning he and his brother Sam killed two men in New Mexico and, with two others, the Ketchum gang was born.

Kid Curry has finally received his due as a member of the Wild Bunch led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was an ugly piece of work with a violent temper made worse by alcohol, though not the bloodthirsty killer others have claimed. His biographer asserts that Curry planned and carried out the gang’s train robbers and that there is no concrete evidence that Cassidy ever participated. The fate of Tom and Frank McLaury was to be gunned down by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday at the O.K. corral. Both were exonerated though the shootout would continue to take several more lives in its wake. Individually or all three books offer a picture of what life was like on the frontier.

Children’s Books, the Ideal Gifts

In a world filled with bad news, impressionable children can grow up without a realization that it is filled with many good people. That is why I especially liked Lynea Gillen’s Good People Everywhere ($15.95, Three Pebble Press, a laminated hardcover) beautifully illustrated by Kristina Swarner. In simple language and pictures, it reinforces the understanding that, while bad people may make headlines, good people go about their lives by useful and helpful all around the world. The author has been a school teacher and counselor for more than thirty years. Ideal for those ages 3 and up to about 6 or 7. I heartily recommend it.

One of my favorite publishers of children’s books is Kids Can Press. Its fall catalog is filled with wonderful books to entertain those so young the books can be read to and those who are early readers. Among them is Susan Hood’s The Tooth Mouse, illustrated by Janice Nadeau ($16.95). It is based on the French version of our tooth fairy story in which a mouse leaves money in exchange for their baby teeth. When the old Tooth Mouse announces it is time to name her successor, Sophie wants to be selected, but she must fulfill three tasks to prove she is brave, honest and wise. Toads on Toast by Linda Bailey and illustrated by Colin Jack ($16.95) is a very funny tale of Momma Toad’s efforts to save herself and her babies from ending up on Fox’s frying pan. It is pure fun from beginning to end as she outwits him.

Four Kids Can books present their stories comic book style for kids ages 4 to 8, pre-school to third grade. They are Binky Takes Charge by Ashley Spires; That Spooky Night by Dan Bar-el, illustrated by David Huyck; Luz Makes a Splash by Claudia Devila (all $16.95) and Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas by Melane Watt ($17.95). Each offers a story to capture the imagination of a young reader as well as teach a few useful life lessons. For a dash of reality, there’s poet Marilyn Singer’s A Strange Place to Call Home ($16.99) illustrated by Caldicott medalist Ed Young. Kids love animals and fourteen different ones are described along with the dangerous places that are their habitats. It is a testimony to the incredible diversity of life and its adaptability.

For youngsters in a bilingual family that speaks and reads both English and Spanish, there’s Healthy Foods from A to Z (Comida Sana de la A a la Z) by Stephanie Maze and photos by Renee Comet ($15.95, Moonstone Press) both of whom have many books to their credit. The book features “faces” made from the various fruits and vegetables that offer a great way for a youngster, age 4 to 8, to learn about them. It also includes projects and information for children and their parents. If I had as Many Grandchildren as You by Lori Stewart ($19.95, Palmar Press) is a great gift for grandparents to give to their grandchildren with his lively, warm-hearted verse that offers an optimistic message illustrated by excellent photography. It is written for children looking for some adventuresome fun and for grandparents finding their special role as makers of memories, as it sparks imagination and creativity.

I have long been a fan of the books published by American Girl. Many are based on characters set in a particular era. A new one is Caroline Abbott and the series set in the time of the 1812 war begins appropriately with Meet Caroline growing up two hundred years ago with a story that shows girls how to stay steady and believe in themselves during difficult times. Caroline is nine years old and lives near Lake Ontario in Sackets Harbor, New York. Her father is a shipbuilder, but British soldiers have captured him and her cousin, so she must navigate the challenges of wartime. It is the first of six historical novels written by Kathleen Ernst and there is also an 18-inch Caroline doll. At $6.95 each, this series will intrigue girls age 8 and older.

If there’s a child or children in your life, beyond the love you give, you should also be giving them books that tell them about their world in which they live, its history, and to pass on good values and knowledge.

Novels, Novels, Novels

The torrent of new novels continues and, as often as not, I have to tell authors seeking reviews that I tend to take note of novels from established publishers, large and small, whose livelihood depends on what they offer. Self-published authors are not only up against what they publish, but against countless other self-published authors all seeking reviews.

An auspicious debut is Flesh ($25.95, Black Heron Press) by Vietnam-born Khanh Ha, set at the beginning of the 20th century when Vietnam was still under the control of France. It begins with the beheading of a bandit in front of his wife and two young sons. The oldest son, Tai, embarks on a mission to retrieve his father’s skull and find a suitable burial site. Then to have revenge on the man who betrayed his father’s trust. It is a journey, too, for the reader into a former time of indentured labor, the back streets of Hanoi with its opium dens, and a vast gap between desperate coolies and the lawless rich. Along the way Tai falls in love as the story twists and turns on its way to revenge as the author explores the human psyche. By contrast, Return to Willow Lake: A Lakeshore Chronicles Book is the ninth novel by Susan Wiggs ($24.95, Harlequin) already a bestselling novelist with a large following. It takes the reader to the Catskill town of Avalon on the shores of Willow Lake for a summer of laughter and tears, of old dreams and new possibilities. It reminds us of how important home is. Sonnet Romano seems to have life figured out. Her career at UNESCO is on the rise and she has just won a Hartstone fellowship that will send her to work overseas. Her boyfriend, the campaign manager of her father’s senate race, is happy for her as well. All this comes apart when she learns her mother is unexpectedly expecting and the pregnancy is high risk. At which point Sonnet puts everything on hold to head home. This is a big juicy story of interesting characters and a plot that keeps you turning the pages.

Joanne Harris, the author of “Chocolat” that was made into an Oscar-nominated film, and eleven other bestselling novels, is back with a sequel, Peaches for Father Francis, ($26.95, Viking) that is sure to please the readers of “Chocolat” in which eight years have passed and Vianne is summoned back to the village of Lansquenet where she used to run her chocolate shop. Returning with her daughters, Anouk and Rosette, is seems as if everything and nothing has changed in the small village. The relationships with your one-time best friend, Josephine, is still in an ambiguous with her lover, Roux, and is the mother of a son born just days after Rosette’s birth. Her adversary Father Francis Reynaud still feels persecuted and misunderstood, but the most obvious change has been the arrival of a large number of Moroccans and the tensions this has caused. Harris is a master of exploring such relationships and readers of “Chocolat” will surely enjoy her return to this story after the passage of time. James Phoenix makes his debut with Frame Up ($27.95, Grey Swan Press) as we go along with a private eye, Fenway Burke. Need I say it is set in Boston? It is a classic hardboiled detective novel with a set of memorable characters that includes a huge fellow nicknamed Tiny who runs the city’s largest bookie operation. Toss in a white-bearded lobsterman, and Fenway’s love interest, Megan, a public defender, and you have a story about a kid who’s been framed for murder. Bodies pile up and Fenway discovers he’s up against a violent and talented international hit man. Just staying alive makes this quite an adventure.

Stacks of softcover books keep getting higher every day as new novels arrive. Here is a selection of some of the most recent arrivals.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian author, Tan Twan Eng, ($15.99, Weinstein Biooks) is the work of a novelists who has already enjoyed much acclaim for his first novel, “The Gift of Rain.” This is an intricate novel about a woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who is retiring from the Supreme Court bench in Kuala Lumpur. Much earlier in her life, she and her sister had been interned in a Japanese slave-labor camp. They had survived the horrors by recalling in exacting detail the exquisite Japanese gardens of Kyoto they had once visited as a family. When she returns to the Cameron Highlands of Malaya, she seeks out Nakamura Aritomo, the exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan who has created the only Japanese garden in all of Malaya. She asks his instruction to create a garden in his sister’s memory. Suffice to say there is so much to this novel that it draws the reader into a different era, a different culture, and the interweaving of lives. Jonathan Tropper follows up his breakout novel, “This is Where I Leave You” which was named one of the best of the year by the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and others. Three years later, Tropper has written One Last Thing Before I Go ($26.95, Dutton) whose central character is 44-year-old Drew Silver, a washed-up musician getting by on royalty checks from a long faded hit song. His ex-wife is about to re-marry and his Princeton-bound daughter, Casey, has just informed him that she’s pregnant. When he learns that his heart needs an emergency, life-saving surgery, he makes a very unusual decision to become a better man if it kills him. There’s wit and insight in this story so it was worth the wait for it.

Here is a quick look at a number of softcover novels worth reading. Two are from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing, are Dying to Read by Lorena McCourtney ($14.99), a fast-paced and witty romantic mystery about a private investigator trying to determine who lives at a particular address. When the house happens to contain a dead body, an ordinary investigation gets complicated. Perfectly Ridiculous by Kristin Billerbeck looks at the life of a normal teenage girl and her struggles to fit it and not be “different.” Her overprotective parents don’t make that easy, especially when a free trip to Argentina includes their decision to go along.

The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy ($15.00, Free Press) is a debut novel set in a mysterious Welsh estate of Evendon and a family whose lives draw you in, especially when the father goes missing and an emotional roller coaster ride begins. Jerry B. Jenkins, by contrast, has written more than 175 books including the Left Behind series. In The Breakthrough ($14.99, Tyndale House Publishers) he continues his “11th Precinct” series. Boone Drake, the youngest bureau chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Major Case Squad, must tackle life’s hard decisions, forced to decide from being there for his family and spearheading a human-trafficking sting in China. There are some real moral choices to be made, but he heads to Beijing to find a young boy before he disappears forever. In a summer filled with forest fires, in One Foot in the Black ($14.95, MCM Publishing) Kurt Kamm tells a coming-of-age story of a young forest fire fighter. Fleeing an abusive father, Greg Kowalski joins a firefighting crew only to suffer the loss of his team’s captain, a man who had become a mentor. While the story is fiction, it is a depiction of how wildfires are fought and the dangers they pose. It pulses with the dangers faced and the inner struggles of anger and loss.

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would parody the bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James and “Fanny Merkin”, a.k.a. Andrew Shaffer, has done that in Fifty Shames of Earl Grey ($13.99, Da Capo Press). It is the story of innocent and unsuspecting Anna Steal who meets a young, rich CEO named Earl Grey (yes, same as the tea) who sweeps her off her feet. It probably helps if you read James’ book, but it doesn’t matter because Shaffer’s is a madcap piece of fun though, if I may say so, not everyone’s cup of tea.

That’s it for September! Remember to tell your family, friends, and co-workers about, the one source for many of the best new books that you may well not read about anywhere else. Then come back in October!


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