Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bookviews - February 2015

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

While we read and hear about the latest barbaric assault on humanity perpetrated by Islamic fanatics, the search for answers as to why they are doing this continues. In present times, the upsurge of those pursuing a holy war or jihad is traced to Iran’s Islamic revolution that began in 1979. After that it took off in the form of al Qaeda, but why so many Muslims have turned to violence to impose Islam is widely debated. One answer will surprise you and comes from Sarah Chayes the author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security ($26.95, W.W. Norton). A foreign policy expert with ten years’ experience in Afghanistan, Chayes examines the ancient and widespread role of corruption that, with regard to many nations in the Middle East and African Maghreb has led to the “Arab Spring” in which the populations of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt drove their dictators from power. Chayes makes a case that the looting of the public treasure and often the ostentatious lifestyle of the dictators or members of their families finally convinced those in their nations to rise up against them. Americans do not live in a nation where virtually every interface with a government employee or with the police requires a bribe, but that has been the life of millions in oil-rich or developing nations. It also explains why American “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed because corruption is still so deeply rooted in their governments. It is a widespread evil and much of what we are seeing worldwide—the latest example is Ukraine—is tied to the growing rejection of it.

In 2012 I reviewed Edmund Contoski’s The Impending Monetary Revolution, the Dollar and Gold ($28.95, American Liberty Publishers, softcover) and thought it was one of the best books explaining how the U.S. got into the 2008 financial crisis, why it could occur again, and why current financial practices are endangering the nation with a huge $18 trillion debt. I am happy to report that its second edition is available and is even more relevant in terms of the past three years. Contoski has not only the knowledge, but the talent to write about the dangerous global and national conditions that exist in a way that anyone can understand. You will, for example, wonder why the U.S. retains Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage corporations that are not government agencies, but that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and which Congress bailed out with billions, just as they did with General Motors. At the heart of our problems is the government’s unrestrained spending. “No nation every spent itself into prosperity”, says Contoski, and “Greater borrowing is no solution for either Europe or America. Governments can borrow and create debt, but they cannot create wealth. If they could, inflation would be unnecessary. So would taxation.”  If you are concerned about the current economy and want to know how to protect yourself against the future, this is a book you must read.

For anyone who loves to read about travel, you’re in for a treat when you read Jamie Maslin’s new book, The Long Hitch Home ($24.95, Skyhorse Publishing). I became aware of Maslin when I read his first book, “Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn”, and it provided a very different look at Iranians than we get in the newspapers. They like to have fun too. Maslin likes to travel and if that includes getting into some potentially dangerous situations, that’s okay with him. So, when he decided to travel to London by way of hitchhiking from his home in Australia’s Tasmania, he had to know he was in for an unusual trip. In fact, it required 800 hitchhiking rides, 18,000 miles, four seasons, three continents, and 19 countries. This book takes you along and is a very entertaining trip filled with insights and information you could not acquire in any other fashion.

ZestBooks’ editors have a talent for publishing offbeat and always interesting books that break through the usual formats and themes. A recent example is Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects, and Cults—Exposed! by Julie Tibbott ($14.99, softcover). In a lively, entertaining text she explains the appeal of exclusive memberships and examines the histories and practices of fifty groups such as the Knights Templar of old, Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, and the Illuminati which got its start in 1776 and is believed to be devoted to taking over the world. It is, however, unknown whether or not it still exists! It was a secret society of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era. The odds are strong that, as its members died, so did the secret society. The various groups she writes about will keep you turning the pages as you learn about those who joined them and why, inevitably, they fizzled out or came to a bad end like Jim Jones cult that committed suicide.

My career as a writer began with weekly newspapers, then dailies, and then as a freelancer for many magazines, so I or anyone who has ever worked with a magazine can be forgiven for having an interest in Stuart Englert’s Sold Out: How an American Magazine Lost Its Soul ($13.94, available from, softcover and Kindle). He tells the story of “American Profile” a newspaper insert similar to “Parade”, but aimed at an audience in “flyover America”, people living in rural communities between the coasts; people whose values differ in that they favor small town life, church-going, and fundamental American traditions, focusing on being of service to their neighbors and communities. That was the original editorial focus of “American Profile” as conceived by L. Daniel Hammond. It was offered to small town dailies and gained up to ten million readers rather quickly, but to get it started he had to turn to Wall Street investors more interested in its quick success as a reason to sell it. To sustain it financially its advertising staff soon took over its editorial content in order to sell ads to big brands such as cigarette manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. From an editorial success story to something far less than its origins is told by Englert who was with the publication as an editor for 14 years. His book is a case history of what happens when good editorial standards are sacrificed for fast dollars. “American Profile”, however, is still being published.

I have never played golf, but I know a good book about the game when I see it. That was my reaction to Kalliope Barlis’s Play Golf Better Faster: The Classic Guide to Optimizing Your Performance and Building Your Best Fast ($19.95, softcover, purchase at as well as, Kindle, and other outlets.) The author took up golf in her twenties and in a remarkably short time, she became a professional golfer. These days she tours the country as a golf improvement specialist addressing groups of people who share her love of the game. There is a huge mass of information about golf and what impressed me about this book is the way it focused on the fundamentals while providing excellent advice why the game is about much more than the equipment it requires. She reveals both the mental and the physical elements that will lift the golfer to a higher level, from the novice to the experienced player.

Reading History

The fascination with the American Civil War has generated many books and there’s always room for one more, especially if it is as good as Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged by William C. Davis ($32.50, Da Capo Press). It is a hefty volume of 629 pages that looks at both men simultaneously, removing the myths surrounding them to present them as complex men with very different, but strikingly similar, personal and professional lives. Davis is one of the nation’s top Civil War historians, having authored or edited more than fifty books. He is a three-time winner of the Jefferson Davis Award. The reader gets to follow Grant and Lee through their four meetings over their lives from the Mexican-American war when they were on the same side to Lee’s surrender on behalf of the Confederacy. Both men died at the age of 63. Davis concludes that as leaders, decision makers, and soldiers they were virtually indistinguishable. The book’s focus is less on the incidents of their lives than on their moral and ethical worlds, what they felt and believed and why. In this respect the book fills an important role for those who find the Civil War of interest.

The era that preceded the Civil War is addressed by Eric Foner in his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad ($26.95, W.W. Norton). James Oakes, an author and winner of the Lincoln Prize, says of this book that it “liberates the history of the underground railroad from the twin plagues of mythology and cynicism. The big picture is here, along with telling details from previously untapped sources.” Between 1830 and 1860, operatives of the underground railroad in New York helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom. Their defiance of the disastrous Fugitive Slave law inflamed the slave states and contributed to their decision to secede. It is hard for us to conceive of what it meant to live in those times, but this book brings them to life.

Most certainly Theodore Roosevelt became an almost mythic figure, but Harry Lembeck tells us of an aspect of his presidency of which most may not have heard. Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics ($27.00, Prometheus Books). In August 1906, black soldiers stationed in Brownsville, Texas, were accused of going on a lawless rampage in which shots were fired, one man was killed, and another wounded. Because the perpetrators could never be positively identified, President Roosevelt took the highly unusual step of discharging without honor all 167 members of the black battalion on duty the night of the shooting. Lembeck tells the story which begins at the end when Sen. Joseph Foraker was honored by the black community in Washington, D.C., for his efforts to reverse Roosevelt’s decision. At that time racism was widespread in America, making Sen. Foraker’s effort to reverse Roosevelt’s decision even more courageous. Sixty-seven years after the event, President Richard Nixon finally undid Roosevelt’s action by honorably discharging the men of the Brownsville Battalion.

The internment of Americans born of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry during World War II was a dark chapter in our history. Just how ugly it was is captured by Jan Jarboe Russell in The Train to Crystal City ($30.00, Scribners) which tells the story of an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas where immigrants and their American-born children were sent without ever being charged with a crime. It was the only family internment camp during the war and it was the center of a government prisoner exchange program during which hundreds of prisoners, including their children, were sent back to the nations from which they had emigrated for Americans deemed more important in exchange for imprisoned diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians, and missionaries. This is a tragic story but Russell notes that the Texas Rangers ran the camp with compassion and the inmates created churches, schools, and other amenities. The story of Crystal City is the story of the hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s subsequent declaration of war on America. Those were bad times made worse by bad decisions that ignored the very reason immigrants had come here, freedom. You’ll read this book and wonder how it happened, but it did happen.

Further back in history, we visit England in 1649 when members of its parliament and others became so frustrated with King Charles I that they did the unthinkable; they beheaded him. He had been king since 1625, ruling over England, Scotland and Ireland. He was completely devoted to the concept of the divine right of kings; the belief that he was king by appointment from God. He was also arrogant and corrupt, living the high life at the expense of his noble class and the peasants. After seven bloody years of a war against Spain and Europe’s Catholic powers that had caused much suffering, a tribunal of 135 men was hastily gathered in London. Charles refused to acknowledge it and they decided to behead him. His son, Charles II was restored to the throne and, instead of learning anything from the execution, he set on retribution. This set in motion the concept of a constitutional monarchy with limited powers that exists to this day. You can read all about this incendiary moment in history in Charles Spencer’s Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I ($34.95, Bloomsbury Press). It is testimony to why fact is always superior to fiction because it so often defies the imagination.

Bios and Memoirs

Hugh O’Brian was one of those actors I grew up seeing in movie and on television. For many he is best known for starring in the TV series, “Wyatt Earp.” When I read Hugh O’Brian, or What’s Left of Him, his memoir written with his wife, Virginia, ($14.00, Book Publishers Network, softcover, available from I discovered a remarkable man. Published on the eve of his 89th birthday, it has forewords by Hugh Hefner and Debbie Reynolds. She tells a delightful story of how he taught her to kiss. She was raised in a very strict family and had never even held hands with a boy. They went on to become good friends. O’Brian tells stories of his life in the Marines, of changing his name from Krampe to O’Brian because nobody seemed to know how to pronounce or spell it. He led what appears to have been a life filled with being in the right place at the right time. It didn’t hurt that he was incredibly good looking. Along the way he met people from Marilyn Monroe to Albert Schweitzer; the latter inspired him to create the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership to encourage community service. His work on this project would put him in contact with Presidents Nixon, Clinton and Bush over the years. If you think of him solely as an actor, his memoir reveals how much more he was and did in his life. It is well worth reading.

Many years ago I did public relations for Actors Equity and had the pleasure of meeting many of the leading actors and actresses of the time. Among them was Theodore Bikel who was president of the union at the time. He has had such a remarkable life that it is good news that a new edition of Theo: An Autobiography ($21.48, softcover, available at has been published. It’s a celebration of Bikel's ninth decade, in which he looks back at his life as an activist for civil rights and progressive causes worldwide, and a singer whose voice has won him great applause. A compelling life story, it practically requires a passport to read, Bikel was born in Austria, raised in Palestine, educated in England, and has had a stellar career in the United States and around the world. His personal history ran parallel to momentous events of the twentieth century. In an eloquent, fiercely committed voice, he writes of the Third Reich, the birth of the state of Israel, the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, the tumultuous 1960s in America, and events in the Middle East. He is perhaps best known for playing the role pf Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, but he also created the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”. He has had more than 150 screen roles and many others on television and has recorded 37 albums over the years.

To Your Health

Due out officially in March, The Handy Nutrition Answer Book by Patricia Barnes-Svarney and Thomas E. Svarney ($21.95, Visible Ink Press, softcover) will answer your questions about what foods are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and proteins, as well as fats—some are good and some are not. This book is filled with information that brings the complexity of food and healthy nutrition together as it answers nearly 900 common questions such as how are calories measured and why is high fructose corn syrup so controversial? What’s the best way to cook vegetables to keep their nutrients from being destroyed? And what does the word “natural” really mean on the label? The authors—Patricia is a science writer and Thomas is a scientist—are very skilled and have previously written “The Handy Biology Answer Book” and others. Indeed, I would recommend you visit to check out the many excellent books filled with answers about history, science, and most recently, about Islam.

There are books being written about gluten, a substance that causes gastrointestinal problems because some people have an intolerance for it. It is the basis for celiac disease. Found in wheat, it varies in flours such as rye and barley. By far the largest book I have seen to date is The Gluten Free Revolution by Jax Peters Lowell ($28.00, Henry Holt and Company, softcover) that is 632 pages in length. The book’s subtitle says it is about “Absolutely everything you need to know about losing the wheat, reclaiming your health, and eating happily ever after.”

The author was diagnosed as suffering from celiac for more than twenty years before it was traced to eating wheat-based foods. Thereafter she devoted herself to bringing national attention to why a gluten-free diet would spare others allergic to gluten. For anyone diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, this encyclopedic book has every answer to every question you might have.

My Mother was an internationally honored authority on wine and I grew up enjoying it with the gourmet dinners she prepared. Wine has many health benefits. I came to know people who produced wine and they are a special group devoted to one of the oldest skills, dating back to biblical times and earlier. Natalie Berkowitz is a wine, food and lifestyle writer who has been published in leading publications such as The New York Times, Vogue, and of course the Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. She has even taught a wine appreciation course to seniors at Barnard and Columbia University for more than a decade. She has written The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir ($27.95, Columbia University Press) and I guarantee you, if you love wine, you will love this book. Indeed, even a beginner just learning about the joys and benefits of wine will enjoy it. She has interviewed more than forty of the top viticulture maestros from all over the world with the result that the readers get to learn about the wine-making process which is both an art and a science, from harvest to bottling. To fully enjoy wine there is much more than just drinking it. It has a history, it has a location, it has various distinctions in terms of the grapes from which it is made to the special qualities it will possess. “Terroir” by the way is a French word for “land” and how geography and climate interact with plant genetics. It refers to the way wines are influenced by where they are grown, the soil in which they are planted. After you read this engrossing and entertaining book, your next stop will be to purchase a bottle or two of wine.

Kid Stuff

For the younger crowd, age 4 and up, there’s an inspiring story, Sadie’s Big Steal by Marla McKenna, ($10.99, Tate Publishing, softcover) a sequel to “Mom’s Big Catch” as told by Sadie, the family dog who loves to catch balls and tells of her plan to steal a major league baseball that Mom had caught at a game. She wants to share playing with it with her other dog friends. Along the way, though, she realizes that it would be wrong to do that and she realizes, too, that she wants to help a new dog in the neighborhood find a home with the help of the local shelter. It’s the kind of story that teaches some valuable lessons about respecting and helping others. I would recommend it to any parent that wants to share those lessons.

There's a lot of fun to be had reading The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Loses Her Ballet Slippers by Sheila and Letty Sustrin, wonderfuly illustrated by Thomas H. Bone III ($17.95, Blue Marlin Publications). Written by identical twins and retired teachers, this is a fifth in the series about "The Teacher Who Would Not Retire" aimed at readers aged 5 and up. When she cleaned a number of slippers and put them out to dry, they disappeared. The rest is a hilarious account of the effort to find them and all the people who joined in to help. The culprit is a cat, but when they disappear again you will be delighted by the way it ends.

For the pre-teen and teenager there’s Psi Another Day by D. R. Rosensteel ($9.99, Entangled Publishing, softcover) that features Rinnie Noelie, a girl with a keen fashion sense, a secret identify, and fierce fighting skills. By night she is a Psi Fighter battling the Walpurgis Knights, lethal villains who brutalize her city. By day she’s a high school student and that can be just as frightening because the school is one in which bullying is a part of everyday activities. She wants to use her fighting skills to protect her outcast friends from the school bullies known as the Red Team, but that might reveal the secret of her true identity and place her in mortal danger from the Knights. I am pleased to report that the book lacks the foul language one finds in too many young adult books these days. It’s anti-drug and anti-bullying message would resonate with any young reader. This is an exceptionally well-written book and the good news is that it is the first in a three-book series.

A book written to inspire younger readers is The Hero's Trail by T.A. Barron ($8.99, Puffin Books, softcover). Aimed at those age 8 and up, it is filled with profiles of young heroes who displayed courage, hope, generosity, compassion and perseverance. The book is a reflection of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, an award that honors them and the author's mother. Over the years, close to $550,000 has been awarded to nearly 350 children and the book features 71 of them. If Barron's name strike a chord, it is because he is the author of the "Merlin Series" which has sold millions of copies worldwide. This would make a great gift for any young person.

Novels, Novels, Novels

A number of novels offer a variety of reading experiences with their themes and one that is sure to grab your attention is The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson ($25.00, Caravel Books) set in the merciless and magnificent high desert of Southwestern Utah. This is Anderson’s debut novel, but he has had short fiction published that earned praise. In this novel, Ben Jones is on the verge of losing his small trucking company. A single, 38 year old truck driver, his route takes him back and forth across one of the most desolate regions, providing daily deliveries that bring him into contact with an eccentric cast of character that include an itinerant preacher who drags a life-sized cross along the blazing roadside, the Lacey brothers who live in boxcars mounted on cinderblocks, and Ginny, a pregnant and homeless punk teenager whose survival skills make her an unlikely heroine. Ben is drawn into a love affair with Claire, who plays a cello in the model home of an abandoned housing development and her appearance reignites a decades-old tragedy at a roadside cafĂ© referred to by the locals as the “never-open desert diner.” The owner is an embittered and solitary old man who refuses to yield to change after his wife’s death. The diner was the scene of a horrific crime that was committed forty years earlier and now threatens to destroy the lives of those left in its wake. Sound interesting? It is!

Shady Cross by James Hankins ($14.95 and $9.95 ebook, Thomas & Mercer, softcover) introduces us to a small-time thief named Stokes who is not a good guy which is why he is not particularly upset when he accidently runs a car off the road, killing the driver. About to flee the scene, he spots a backpack near the car that has a pile of cash in it, enough to pay off his debts and let him leave town and start a new life. The bag, though, also contains a ringing cell phone and when he answers it turns out to be a little girl in distress. “Daddy? Are you coming to get me?” asks the girl. Stokes must decide whether to keep the money or use it to save the child’s life. Hankins has three bestselling thrillers to his credit and this one will keep you turning the pages to see what Stokes will do. In Andy Siegel’s Cookie’s Case: A Tug Wyler Mystery ($14.99, Mysterious Press, softcover) the author who in real life is a personal injury and medical malpractice attorney in New York, transmutes his experience into the second novel based on the character of Tug Wyler who is also an attorney. His first novel, “Suzy’s Case” was selected as a Poisoned Pen Bookstore Best Debut Novel and a Suspense Magazine Best Book of 2012. In this latest novel you will understand why Tug decides that Cookie is the victim of a spine surgeon and wants to secure a medical remedy and a fair shake for her. Cookie is the most popular performer at Jingles Dance Bonanza and she has a devoted audience even though she must wear a neck brace. Will justice triumph? You will have to read this novel to find out.

It’s a good thing to have been born and raised in Nebraska if you are going to write Secrets of the Porch ($17.99, Tate Publishing, softcover) which is set there. Sue Ann Sellon has written an inspirational, coming of age romance featuring 16 year old Sophie Mae Randolph who has been adrift since her mother died of cancer. To get away from abusive foster parents she hits the streets and together with a boy named Gabe gets arrested for robbing a gas station. The judge lets her avoid juvenile detention when she agrees to spend a year in Nebraska on her grandmother’s farm. She has never met grandma Lila but their relationship develops and she realizes that they both have their secrets. She finds a boyfriend named Blake and everything is fine until Gabe shows up.  Kirkus reviews called this one “a sweet, smart story about growing up and learning to trust.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Perhaps the most unusual novel I have seen in a long time is Five Days: Which Days Would You Choose? by Matt Micros ($9.18, Micropulous Press, available at When 40-year-old Mike Postman rescues a drowning boy he allows himself to drown. Since he died a hero the angel Gabriel gives him a gift of choosing five days that he can relive. The book raises questions about life and death, suicide and the afterlife while raising questions about which five days you might relive if given the opportunity. Definitely offbeat, but it will appeal to some.

That’s it for February. Tell your family, friends and coworkers who love to read about and come back in March for more news about interesting non-fiction and fiction books you may not read about anywhere else.