Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Seances, Special Ops and Bill James on Baseball: March Books

Seances, Special Ops and Bill James on Baseball: March Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

March 1 (Bloomberg) -- It's March, when the Emperor penguins in the Antarctic start their long march to mate. Many humans obsess over the Oscars. For those who'd rather be reading, we offer this preview of selected fiction and nonfiction coming in the month.


``A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveler,'' by Frances Mayes (Broadway): Her bestselling ``Under the Tuscan Sun'' prompted an invasion of her Italian hometown of Cortona by camera-wielding tour groups. So Mayes takes off for some less- obnoxious locales, including Portugal, Turkey, Greece and North Africa.

``America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy,'' by Francis Fukuyama (Yale University): Fukuyama's hugely influential 1992 book, ``The End of History and the Last Man,'' asserted that liberal capitalist democracies were the ultimate manifestation of civilization, sort of. His new treatise says the neoconservative urge to spread democracy through ``preventative warfare'' has become a ``benevolent hegemony'' and may have gone too far.

``American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century,'' by Kevin Phillips (Viking): According to this former Republican strategist, every world-dominating power down through time has four things in common: militant religion, resource problems, ballooning debt and globe-spanning ambition. Does that sound like the U.S. in the beginning of the 21st century?

``Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq,'' by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor (Pantheon): Gordon, a correspondent for the New York Times, and Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general, had first-hand access to General Tommy Franks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others during the planning and execution of the war. They promise an insider's account full of revelations.

``Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney,'' by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins): This is the second volume in a trilogy that started with 1988's ``Intellectuals.'' The popular conservative historian now serves up brief bios of artists, including composers Bach and Wagner, scribes Austen and Dickens, fashionistas Balenciaga and Dior. Expect the third volume, ``Heroes,'' in another two decades.

``Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis With a Man Who Led the Mossad,'' by Efraim Halevy (St. Martin's): The ex-spook offers a unique perspective on Middle East politics from his perch atop Israel's secret service. His book provides a blow-by-blow of backdoor negotiations with the Palestinians, diplomatic clashes with the U.S. and more -- though don't expect him to reveal any state secrets.

``Miracles on the Water: The Attack on the S.S. City of Benares,'' by Tom Nagorski (Hyperion): An ABC news producer recounts the 1940 sinking of the British passenger ship by a German submarine. A total of 406 crew and passengers were aboard, 90 of whom were children. Just 13 of the children survived the gale-force winds and days adrift.

``The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky,'' by Ken Dornstein (Random House): The author's brother David, an aspiring writer, was just 25 when he died in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Using diaries and his own investigative wits, Dornstein reconstructs his brother's brief and ultimately tragic life. In addition to writing the book David never would, Ken has crafted a paean to brotherly love.

``The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences,'' by Louis Uchitelle (Knopf): Sad but true: Sometimes companies have to let workers go for the sake of profitability. This polemic by a New York Times reporter argues, in part, that corporations overuse the pink slip, and no U.S. government since the 1970s has tried to stop them. A jeremiad for Joe Six Pack and Jim Middle Manager.

``The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis,'' by John Wasik (Palgrave Macmillan): Sam Insull amassed a fortune of more than $1 billion in today's money and lost it all in the Great Depression. He died with less than a dollar in his pocket. Wasik, a Bloomberg News columnist, tells the life story of America's first power baron: the man who developed the power grid and was instrumental in the creation of General Electric.

``The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball,'' by Scott Gray (Doubleday): The unlikely story of how a Kansas factory worker changed the way experts thought about baseball. If you don't already know who Bill James is and why his ``Historical Baseball Abstract'' is so influential, then this subtle dissection of James's ideas will matter to you even less than a midseason doubleheader between the Detroit Tigers and the Milwaukee Brewers.

``The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth,'' by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly): Prompted by the perceived threat of global warming, the Australian scientist delivers a terrifying and convincing account of man's abuse of the planet, as well as the consequences it may have for our grandchildren and beyond. If you think the weather is wild now, just wait.

``The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,'' by William Easterly (Penguin): After trillions of dollars in aid sent from the mature economies to developing nations during the past 50 years, why is so much of the world still so poor? The New York University economist and World Bank veteran bluntly explains why he thinks we're going about it the wrong way. His advice: Think global, act local -- really local.

``To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, From Achilles to Al Qaeda,'' by Derek Leebaert (Little, Brown): An exhaustive alternative history of warfare as viewed from the perspective of clandestine warriors, who often enabled small armies to defeat much larger ones. Leebaert starts with the Trojan Horse and ends with Delta Force and the CIA. Break out your night-vision goggles: This one will hold your attention long after dark.


``Brookland,'' by Emily Barton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): The most prize-worthy novel of the month is the tale of three sisters in 18th-century Brooklyn, one of whom dreams of a fantastic bridge across the East River to Manhattan. An early feminist, she bides her time working at the family's gin distillery, until she can take it over and have access to the resources to make her dream come true.

``Intuition,'' by Allegra Goodman (Dial): An intriguing tale of infighting at a cash-poor Boston cancer lab, where a new treatment appears to have reduced the size of tumors in mice and could bring a funding windfall. As the various scientists struggle to handle the fallout of their apparent success, a battle erupts between science and PR. This may be the first literary soap opera for the pocket-protector brigade.

``The Ethical Assassin,'' by David Liss (Ballantine): The author's previous thrillers, ``A Conspiracy of Paper'' and ``A Spectacle of Corruption,'' expertly depicted the origins of the stock market and 18th-century financial matters. Now Liss looks at the economics of -- door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen in Florida circa 1985? Yes. It's quite entertaining, not least for the fey hit man with an animal-rights agenda.

``Apex Hides the Hurt,'' by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday): The third novel by Whitehead, a much-lauded black novelist, features a branding consultant caught up in a Midwestern town's debate over its name. The pedantic debate swirls around race, history and the import of language itself. The book's title refers to a multicultural bandage that will match your skin tone -- or your money back!

``A Death in Vienna,'' by Frank Tallis (Grove): Psychoanalyst Max Liebermann, a fictional disciple of Sigmund Freud's, assists his friend Detective Oskar Rheinhardt in investigating the murder of a medium mid-seance. Initially, the signs suggest a supernatural killer. Using the techniques of psychiatry to interrogate suspects, Liebermann slowly unravels the mystery against the picturesque background of Viennese cafe society in the early 20th century.

``A Dirty Job,'' by Christopher Moore (Morrow): In Moore's latest offbeat yarn, San Franciscan Charlie Asher watches as his child dies during birth and is scooped up by the Death Merchants, who then recruit Charlie to help save the world. Huh? It all leads up to a duel with Death beneath San Francisco's financial district. Moore is heir apparent to humorist Tom Robbins, meaning he's freaky and fun but also an acquired taste.

``The Righteous Men,'' by Sam Bourne (HarperCollins): When his wife is kidnapped, rookie crime reporter Will Monroe is forced to conclude that several killings around the world are connected. This pseudonymous fiction debut by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland involves a race against time, strewn with bestselling ingredients like Bible codes and ancient prophecies.

``Keeping the World Away,'' by Margaret Forster (Chatto): A still life by the painter Gwen John is the central character in a novel charting its fictional adventures. Over the course of more than a hundred years, the canvas travels from Paris to the Tate Gallery via the lost-property office of a railway station, touching the lives of six women.

Monday, February 27, 2006

KPMG's O'Kelly Meets Death, Faux Tocqueville, Basketball: Books

KPMG's O'Kelly Meets Death, Faux Tocqueville, Basketball: Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- On May 24, 2005, Eugene O'Kelly of KPMG LLP peered at a magnetic resonance image of his brain. The picture was ``milky, with dots of varying sizes scattered all over the place,'' he later recalled.

O'Kelly was looking at cancerous tumors. At 53, the chairman and chief executive officer of the U.S. arm of accounting firm KPMG International had three months to live.

True to form, O'Kelly made an executive decision. He vowed to ``continue to live by the rules I'd followed in my business life,'' he writes at the outset of ``Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life'' (McGraw-Hill, 179 pages, $19.95). What follows is one of the most unexpected and touching books you're likely to read this year.

``Chasing Daylight'' is both a handbook on how to ``succeed at death'' and a memoir of the months leading up to O'Kelly's passing on Sept. 10, 2005. ``As head guy,'' he writes, ``I had focused on building and planning for the future. Now, I would have to learn the true value of the present.''

Two weeks after his diagnosis, O'Kelly resigned as chairman and CEO, staying on at KPMG only as a partner. Initially, he set himself the goal of living long enough to attend a partners' meeting that November. As his energy flagged, though, he began to focus on ``unwinding relationships with close lifetime friends.''

`Perfect Moments'

O'Kelly sought to create ``perfect moments'' for each to remember him by, be it a final talk or a boat ride on Lake Tahoe. He spent significant time with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.

It was a remarkable reversal for a man who had previously booked his schedule a year or more in advance. Many people talk about living in the present. O'Kelly learned how to do it.

If anyone should savor the moment, it's a player on any of the ``Final Four'' teams vying for the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I men's basketball championship.

``Most players dream of being in one Final Four,'' John Feinstein writes in ``Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four'' (Little, Brown, 370 pages, $25.95). ``Only a handful get to play in more than one.''

Feinstein's brisk book -- his 19th to date -- recounts classic Final Four moments, such as North Carolina State's upset win over Houston in the 1983 title game. Throughout, the author uses the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis as a backdrop.

Unfortunately, a reader can take only so many buzzer beaters and flagrant fouls. By the last chapter, when North Carolina defeats top-ranked Illinois to win the 2005 title, the book has become one long blur, like a highlight reel on fast forward. This book is mostly for die-hard fans of perennial Final Four teams.

Lap Dancers

American sports aren't high on the agenda of French author Bernard-Henri Levy, who crisscrossed the U.S. to write ``American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville'' (Random House, 309 pages, $24.95).

Even when Levy visits the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, he sniffs. ``This is not a museum; it's a church,'' he says.

Levy prefers to hobnob with a bewildering array of movie stars, authors and semi-celebrities, including Sharon Stone, Norman Mailer and Ron Reagan Jr. He would have done better to hang out with Joe Six Pack.

As the Frenchman careens across the country, he becomes as breathless as a blogger. He rails against America's ``heinous and grotesque fascination'' with guns. He enthuses about Seattle. Lap dancers in New Orleans, Levy says, are ``so much bolder and more cheerful than the cloned dolls in the Las Vegas clubs.''

By the end of this book, you're worn out -- as if you've sat through a slide show of out-of-focus vacation snapshots narrated by your pretentious foreign cousin.