Thursday, August 03, 2006

Zadie's Beauty, Ellis's Satire, Banville's Sea: New Paperbacks

Zadie's Beauty, Ellis's Satire, Banville's Sea: New Paperbacks

Aug. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Zadie Smith's magnificent ``On Beauty,'' Bret Easton Ellis's kooky satire of confessional autobiography, ``Lunar Park'' and John Banville's cerebral Booker Prize-winning ``The Sea'' are among some of the choice paperback releases in August.

``On Beauty'' by Zadie Smith (Penguin). Smith is considered by many critics to be one of the finest novelists writing in English, and rightly so. Her latest is a superb 21st-century riff on E.M. Forster's ``Howard's End'' that transplants the action to a thinly disguised Harvard, where two families, each headed by a rival Rembrandt scholar, find their lives and children intertwined.

``Lunar Park'' by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage). The aging bad boy of American letters --- Ellis wrote the controversial ``American Psycho'' --- is back with an edgy satire about a middle-aged novelist named Bret Easton Ellis who, despite his marriage to a Hollywood starlet and fatherhood, still loves drugs and is wracked with phantasmagoric visions that threaten to destroy his sanity and family.

``End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation'' by Barry C. Lynn (Currency). Relying on examples from General Electric, Dell and Microsoft, Lynn argues that the outsourcing of production to developing nations has put the U.S. economy at risk by leaving it vulnerable to any breakdown in the already fragile global supply chain.

``The Tender Bar'' by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion). The L.A. Times reporter recalls his 1970s childhood on Long Island and the days he spent at the local tavern, where his Uncle Charlie and his Sinatra-loving sidekicks -- Colt, Bobo and Joey D -- schooled him in the manly arts and looked after him while he matured.

``The Sea'' by John Banville (Vintage). Last year's Man Booker Prize-winning novel portrays a middle-aged Irishman, mourning the loss of his wife, who returns to his seaside childhood home to brood and reminisce. It's literature with a capital ``L'': dense and demanding, but ultimately rewarding.

``The Story of a Life'' by Aharon Appelfeld (Schocken). The treasured septuagenarian writer's memoir of growing up in Romania and then surviving the Holocaust in the Ukraine by escaping from a prison camp and passing himself off as an orphaned gentile, until he emigrated as a refugee to Palestine.

``Mining California: An Ecological History'' by Andrew C. Isenberg (Hill & Wang). If you think California is heaven on earth, you should have seen it before the 19th-century gold rush felled ancient redwood forests, washed away mountains and poisoned rivers with mercury, all vividly depicted in this unsettling history of environmental pillage and its aftermath.

``The Scent of Your Breath'' by Melissa P. (Black Cat). P's first book, the autobiographical erotic coming-of-age story ``100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed,'' has sold 2 million copies worldwide. In this sequel, Sicilian Melissa is now 19 and living in Rome, where she abandons one lover, finds another, miscarries and carries on.

``Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future'' by Eric Dregni and John Dregni (Speck Press). Whatever happened to the personal jet packs we were promised by the hyperbolic prognosticators of the last century? This intriguing illustrated book looks back at a world that might have been, but never was.

``A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing'' edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach (Akashic Books). Howard Zinn has met his match in this wry and winking account of these United States in 17 chapters, each by a different writer, that starts with the Chinese discovery of America in 1426 and ending with the war to end all wars in 2011.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Iraq `Fiasco': New Books Target Stupid Policies, Corporate Greed

Iraq `Fiasco': New Books Target Dumb Ideas, Corporate Greed

Aug. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Publishers are releasing an unprecedented number of books that cast a critical eye on the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.

The most scathing critique yet comes from Thomas E. Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post. In ``Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq'' (Penguin Press, 482 pages, $27.95), he writes that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ``ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy.'' Not only was it ``based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history,'' but it ``confused removing Iraq's regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country.''

Though Ricks covers some of the same ground as earlier books, notably ``Cobra II'' by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor (his counterparts at the New York Times), this account -- based on hundreds of interviews and the review of 37,000 documents -- is insightful on the origins of the deadly insurgency and failure of the reconstruction.

Ricks argues that U.S. policies and tactics, especially Paul Bremer's de-Baathification order and disbanding of the Iraqi army -- which put half a million armed and skilled men out of work -- provided the insurgency with all the capable recruits it would ever need.

Few are spared the author's criticism. Congress is rebuked for being too passive: ``In previous wars, Congress had been populated by hawks and doves,'' Ricks writes. Now ``it seemed to consist mainly of lambs who hardly made a peep.'' In a chapter entitled ``The Corrections,'' journalists, including former Times correspondent Judith Miller, are held equally accountable.

`Blind Into Baghdad'

One of the few journalists Ricks praises is James Fallows of the Atlantic magazine, a publication, Ricks says, that did an ``exemplary job in posing the right questions about Iraq both before and after the invasion.''

Five of Fallows's essays on the war have been collected in ``Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq'' (Vintage; coming Aug. 15; 229 pages, $13.95).

Fallows's work is notable for its prescience. He counters then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's assertion that Saddam Hussein's regime was equal to that of Hitler's during the Holocaust, and thus necessitated intervention. Instead, Fallows posits World War I as the better analogy, because it is ``relevant as a powerful example of the limits of human imagination, specifically, imagination about the long-term consequences of war.''

`Blood Money'

Wolfowitz also argued that invasion would be cheap. In ``Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq'' (Little, Brown, coming Aug. 29; 352 pages, $24.95), author T. Christian Miller, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, points out that just a week after the March 2003 invasion, Wolfowitz told a group of congressmen, ``There's a lot of money to pay for this. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.''

Initially in 2003, the Bush administration budgeted $2.3 billion for the reconstruction. Since the invasion, the U.S. has spent more than $30 billion to rebuild Iraq. Still, writes Miller, all that cash ``did not spark an economic renewal. It did not win the trust of a shattered people. And it has not made Iraq more peaceful.''

A dogged reporter, Miller follows the money trail and uncovers escalating tales of thievery: U.S. officials and soldiers who pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars that they used to buy Cadillac Escalades and Breitling watches; a private security company guilty of $3 million in fraud; and, in the most egregious plot of all, an Iraqi arms broker's scheme to skim as much as $2 billion intended to buy new weapons for the Iraqi security forces.

`Prince of the Marshes'

The young British diplomat Rory Stewart experienced the frustration of working in the postwar reconstruction firsthand. In ``The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq'' (Harcourt, 397 pages, $25) he offers a vivid, unflinching chronicle of the 11 months in 2003 and 2004 during which he served as provisional and deputy governor of Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces in the marshland of southern Iraq.

Just 30 years old when he went to Iraq, Stewart already had plenty of experience in the Muslim world: in 2002, he hiked across war-torn Afghanistan (an experience he documented in the best-selling ``The Places in Between'' published in April). In Iraq, he finds the system is broken. Stewart mocks Paul Bremer's seven-point plan for Iraq as ``seven steps to heaven.''

Despite this cynicism, he maintains a stiff-upper-lip resolve to re-establish a political system representing every Iraqi affiliation, Islamist and insurgent alike. Like a contemporary George Orwell, Stewart delivers a harrowing series of episodes, starting with the threats by local tribal strongman -- the prince of the title -- and ending with the fear of being blown to pieces by an unappreciative populace.

`Babylon by Bus'

In contrast, ``Babylon by Bus'' by Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann (Penguin Press, 316 pages, $24.95) is decidedly less serious. Its obnoxious subtitle tells much of what you need to know: ``Or, the True Story of Two Friends Who Gave Up Their Valuable Franchise Selling Yankees Suck T-Shirts at Fenway to Find Meaning and Adventure in Iraq, Where They Became Employed by the Occupation in Jobs for Which They Lacked Qualification and Witnessed Much That Amazed and Disturbed Them.''

The slacker frat-boys serve up a string of picaresque misadventures while working for the Coalition Provisional Authority coordinating NGOs from the Green Zone in Baghdad, and later distributing clothes in the Sadr City slum.

``If we were the good news from Iraq, the CPA had a problem,'' they write. ``Here we were, two penniless idiots running a rag-tag program with zero funding and experience, and there was nothing better than us going on under the CPA?''

They came, they helped, they partied. And when it looked like they faced kidnapping or death, they left.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Quindlen's NYC, Surreal Murakami, Israeli Novelist: New Fiction

Quindlen's NYC, Surreal Murakami, Israeli Novelist: New Fiction

Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Anna Quindlen's portrait of a media star's fall from grace, the return of Michael Tolkin's murderous Hollywood studio exec and short-story collections from Edward P. Jones, Haruki Murakami and Dennis Lehane -- these are some of August's fiction highlights.

``Rise and Shine'' by Anna Quindlen (Random House). A pair of sisters --- Meghan, a hot Manhattan talk-show host, and Bridget, who works at a Bronx women's shelter -- cope with the fallout from Meghan's divorce and career implosion.

``All Aunt Hagar's Children'' by Edward P. Jones (Amistad). Fourteen short stories set among striving African-Americans in Washington, D.C., by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ``The Known World.''

``Return of the Player'' by Michael Tolkin (Grove). The acerbic sequel to the novel Robert Altman adapted into ``The Player'': Hollywood studio exec Griffin Mill, now 52, tries to parlay his pathetic $6 million fortune into the billions he needs to buy a private island.

``The Dissident'' by Nell Freudenberger (Ecco): The second book from the author of the much-lauded ``Lucky Girls'' depicts the culture clash when a Chinese performance artist and political activist takes up residence in the home of a wealthy Beverly Hills family.

``A Woman in Jerusalem'' by A.B. Yehoshua (Harcourt). In this brief, beguiling new work by one of Israel's top novelists, a beautiful, anonymous Russian woman is killed in a suicide bombing and the man hired to identify her finds he's falling in love with who she once was.

``Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman'' by Haruki Murakami (Knopf). This entertaining volume of stories from the Japanese master of the surreal was recently short-listed for Ireland's Frank O'Connor Award, the world's richest prize for short stories.

``The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs'' by Irvine Welch (Norton). The Scottish author of ``Trainspotting'' offers not a sex manual but a portrait of a rivalry pitting two Edinburgh restaurant inspectors -- one a fatherless lout, the other a meek model-train enthusiast -- against an egotistical celebrity chef.

``Coronado'' by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow). Lehane's first book since the triumphant film of his novel ``Mystic River'' packages four previously published short stories, one new one and a play.

``The Night Gardener'' by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown). The latest from the superb D.C.-based mystery novelist features a cop and his disgraced ex-partner who come together to investigate the murder of a teen and find a connection to an unsolved 20- year-old case that has given them nightmares.

``Golden Country'' by Jennifer Gilmore (Scribner). Gilmore's exceptional debut novel is an intricate saga portraying the lives of immigrant Jews in Brooklyn -- entrepreneurs, mobsters and Broadway producers -- from Prohibition through the advent of television.

``Smonk'' by Tom Franklin (William Morrow). A Southern gothic set in 1911 and written in the style of Cormac McCarthy -- i.e., lots of blood and poetry -- in which a small Alabama town goes to war with the hideous, mule-riding rapist who has been terrorizing them for years.

``Special Topics in Calamity Physics'' by Marisha Pessl (Viking). Written in chapters reflecting a Great Books syllabus, Pessl's clever, brainy novel tells the story of Blue van Meer, a student at an elite prep school, who discovers that when a classmate and a teacher die, books don't hold all the answers to life's quandaries.

``Pound for Pound'' by F.X. Toole (Ecco). The only novel by the late author -- on whose short stories the film ``Million Dollar Baby'' was based -- offers the gritty, redemptive tale of an elderly L.A. fight trainer and a talented Hispanic boxer from Texas who comes under his tutelage.

``The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters'' by Gordon Dahlquist (Bantam). A sprawling, bawdy beach tome, featuring a Victorian- era Caribbean maiden who ventures to a nameless European city to search for her fiance who disappeared and finds herself subsumed into a puzzling world of hedonism and intrigue.

``The Expected One'' by Kathleen McGowan (Touchstone). Originally self-published, this thriller picks up where ``The Da Vinci Code'' left off. It stars journalist Maureen Pascal, who goes in search of a gospel written by her ancestor, Mary Magdalene and, ta-da, uncovers a mystery involving historical figures, from Leonardo to, improbably, Jean Cocteau.

``Knights of the Black and White: Book One of the Templar Trilogy'' by Jack Whyte (Putnam). The first of a series set in the 11th century that follows the rise and fall of the Knights Templar, focusing on Sir Hugh de Payens, a Crusader who in this volume fights for control of Jerusalem and secretly pursues the mysteries buried under the Temple Mount.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Monday, July 31, 2006

Adam Smith, Female Brains, Hearst's Camels: August Nonfiction

Adam Smith, Female Brains, Hearst's Camels: August Nonfiction

July 31 (Bloomberg) -- A trio of 9/11 books, a new biography of Adam Smith, a history of fly fishing and a feisty study of the female brain are among the highlights of new August nonfiction.

``The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,'' by Lawrence Wright (Knopf). A New Yorker writer's well-wrought group portrait of four men -- terrorists Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, FBI counterterrorism czar John O'Neill and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal -- and how each influenced the events preceding and culminating in Sept. 11, 2001.

``Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11'' by David Friend (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A study of how 50 pictures associated with the terrorist attacks -- whether the grim specter of falling bodies, the now-iconic ruin at Ground Zero or prisoners at Abu Ghraib -- continue to influence our personal and public politics.

``Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission'' by Thomas H. Kean & Lee H. Hamilton (Knopf). The chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission describe how it managed to deliver an estimable account of the terrorist attacks despite limited resources, divisive politics and a suspicious American public.

``Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror'' by Robert Young Pelton (Crown). Fear junkie and proprietor of ``The World's Most Dangerous Places'' franchise of travel books, Pelton reveals the clandestine, often lawless world of mercenaries, private armies and independent military contractors, and how they've influenced the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other flashpoints around the globe.

``Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children'' by John Wood (HarperBusiness). A former banker and executive in Microsoft's China division explains how he found fulfillment by giving up his corporate career to start the nonprofit Room to Read, which has built 2,500 schools and libraries in rural Asia.

``The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million -- and Bucked the Medical Establishment -- in a Quest to Save His Children'' by Geeta Anand (Regan Books). The extraordinary story of John Crowley, who founded Novazyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. to seek a cure for rare, degenerative Pompe disease, which was killing his young son and daughter. Starting with an endowment of $37,000, Crowley was able to sell the firm within two years to Genzyme Corp. for $137.5 million, virtually ensuring that research for a cure would continue.

``The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas'' by James Buchan (Norton). Buchan notes that the 18th-century philosopher wrote far more than ``An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations'' and shows that his ``invisible hand'' was influenced as much by his religious beliefs as by his Scottish pragmatism.

``Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security'' by Christopher Cooper and Robert Block (Times Books). The two reporters explain how the post-Katrina fiasco revealed the extent to which the Department of Homeland Security is unprepared to handle any grand catastrophe, be it natural or man-made.

``The Female Brain'' by Louann Brizendine (Morgan Road Books). A University of California neuropsychologist offers a scientific examination into why women appear more intuitive, remember arguments that a man forgets, use 13,000 more words a day than men, and other sobering differences between the sexes.

``Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection,'' by George Black (Random House). An eloquent history of American fly fishing and the manufacturing of bamboo fly rods -- an erstwhile cottage industry that has morphed into a multimillion-dollar market.

``The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home'' by Karrie Jacobs (Viking). The architecture critic and founding editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine takes a 14,000-mile road trip in search of a house that is attractive, well built and affordable. Surely any real-estate agents worth their fee would have told her she can have two, but not all three.

``Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death'' by Deborah Blum (Penguin). The story of how a group of brilliant 19th-century and early 20th-century scientists and thinkers became obsessed with discovering empirical evidence of the afterlife and found a few supernatural phenomena they couldn't quite explain.

``The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids'' by Alexandra Robbins (Hyperion). Robbins, who coined the term ``Quarterlife Crisis,'' chronicles the lives of a group of Bethesda, Maryland, high-schoolers as they try to mold themselves into desirable college applicants -- with perfect grades, stellar test scores and a well-rounded mix of extracurricular activities.

``The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa'' by Adam Roberts (PublicAffairs). The far-fetched story of how in March 2004 a mercenary army partially funded by Margaret Thatcher's son tried to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea and get rich by seizing the country's oil -- a scenario straight out of Frederick Forsyth's 1972 novel ``The Dogs of War.''

``The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power'' by Marina Belozerskaya (Little, Brown). Why did William Randolph Hearst keep kangaroos, camels and yaks at San Simeon? Why did the Medicis import lions to roam Florence's Piazza della Signoria? These are just two of the questions answered by this compelling history of how exotic pets bestow prestige and glory on their rich and powerful owners.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)