Thursday, December 07, 2006

Iraq Diagnosis, Putin's Russia, Women and Money: New Paperbacks

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Readers looking to cut through the White House and media spin of the Iraq Study Group report released yesterday can now read the document themselves and draw their own conclusions.

A tone of urgency pervades ``The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward -- A New Approach,'' by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton (Vintage). It states, ``Current U.S. policy is not working, as the level of violence in Iraq is rising and the government is not advancing national reconciliation,'' and the $2 billion a week being spent in Iraq is ``not sustainable over an extended period, especially when progress is not being made.'' Baker and his team offer President Bush 79 recommendations for moving forward.

If 2004's ``9/11 Commission Report'' is any guide, expect to see the study-group manifesto heat up the bestseller lists. It is likely to attract a similarly broad swath of readers -- many of whom will be looking for answers to the question, ``Now what?''

Other highlights this month include:

``Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy'' by Anna Politkovskaya (Owl). Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist who was murdered in October, wrote this highly critical account of life in the New Russia, a dismal virtual dictatorship, where corruption ensures high offices go to the highest bidder, extra- judicial murders go unpunished and starving soldiers fight an endless, pointless war against terror in Chechnya. And this all before outspoken critics began expiring in exotic ways.

``Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash'' by Liz Perle (Picador). Reflecting on her own transition from well-off wife to nearly bankrupt divorcee, Perle examines the complicated relationship women have with money -- from the financial sacrifices that can factor into the decision to marry and have children, to some women's seemingly irrational need for costly handbags, cosmetics and shoes.

``President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination'' by Richard Reeves (Simon & Schuster). One of nearly 900 books on the late president, Reeve's biography focuses on Reagan as ``The Great Communicator'' -- of ideas rather than facts -- and demonstrates how Reagan's seemingly low-key demeanor masked a sharp, intuitive intellect that charmed everyone from Joe Public to Mikhail Gorbachev.

``A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History'' by Thomas Bender (Hill & Wang). A revisionist survey of American history that places U.S. development in the context of global history. Bender argues that the Civil War was but one conflict in a larger wave of revolutions taking place around the world at the same time, and that our financial influence is not solely of our making, but the result of broader capitalist movement across centuries and continents.

``Heroes: A History of Hero Worship'' by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Anchor). Since Sept. 11, 2001, the word ``hero'' has been tossed around like confetti. Here, a British historian contemplates the meaning of heroism and tries to find it in the lives of Alcibiades, El Cid, Albrecht von Wallenstein, Cato, Sir Francis Drake and Garibaldi, all of whom she measures against archetypes including Achilles the soldier and Odysseus the adventurer.

``Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change'' by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury). The New Yorker magazine writer's account of climate change and degradation examines sites in Alaska, the Netherlands and elsewhere and argues that changing weather patterns will threaten agriculture and food supplies while warmer seas will spawn more storms of greater intensity and flood more coastal areas.

``The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca'' by Tahir Shah (Bantam). A British journalist's spirited memoir of moving his young family from rainy London to mystifying Morocco, where he purchases Dar Khalifa, a ruined mansion by the sea, and much like Peter Mayle in ``A Year in Provence,'' finds that renovating his new home in the midst of a foreign culture is far more trouble than he anticipated.

``Gentlemen and Players'' by Joanne Harris (HarperCollins). In this entertaining novel by the author of ``Chocolat,'' a veteran Latin teacher and a young newcomer -- one with access to dangerous secrets -- vie for control over the future of the revered St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, itself struggling to adapt to the new, fast-moving information age while trying to maintain the school's traditional, buttoned-down manner.

``Everybody Loves Somebody'' by Joanna Scott (Back Bay). This absorbing collection of 10 short stories considers the vagaries of love and marriage in a wide variety of contexts, from Europe in the wake of World War I, where a young couple's wedding takes on unexpected layers of meaning, to contemporary New York, where a Madison Avenue ad exec crashes his car in the Catskills while traveling home and is forced reconsider the definition of family.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hannibal's Youth, Holy Shroud, Mosley's Sex Spree: New Novels

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Hannibal ``The Cannibal'' Lecter returns after a seven-year hiatus in ``Hannibal Rising'' (Delacorte), Thomas Harris's prequel to ``Silence of the Lambs'' and ``Hannibal.'' In this serial killer coming-of-age story, Harris gives Lecter a back story, attributing his unusual appetite to a childhood spent amid the horrors of World War II's Eastern Front, where he's discovered wandering in the snow, mute and chained.

When his uncle rescues him from a Russian orphanage and sends him to France, he finds succor with an exotic aunt, the Lady Murasaki. After becoming the youngest student ever admitted to medical school, Lecter's transformation into a monster ensues. Like Harris's previous novels, ``Hannibal Rising'' isn't for the queasy.

Other highlights this month include:

``Paula Spencer'' by Roddy Doyle (Viking). Doyle's sequel to the superb ``The Woman Who Walked Into Doors'' (1996) is equally worthy and now finds working-class Irish housewife Paula Spencer widowed, sober, coping with her grown children and struggling to make a new life for herself.

``Arlington Park'' by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In this suburban novel of manners, the members of an ensemble of upper-class London women are subsumed with ennui, regret and anxiety about their social standing during a single day that leads up to a tense, alcohol-fueled dinner party with their self- satisfied husbands.

``The Teahouse Fire'' by Ellis Avery (Riverhead). Fans of ``Memoirs of a Geisha'' will like this vivid historical novel set in 19th-century Kyoto about a young orphaned American girl who is taken in as a servant at a teahouse, where she serves a difficult mistress, witnesses the advent of modern Japan and undergoes her own Geisha-like rebirth.

``Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel'' by Walter Mosley (Bloomsbury). Mosley is more than a mystery writer. He's written science fiction, quasi-political thrillers and now his first erotic novel, which stars Cordel Carmel, a 45-year-old man who goes on a soul-searching sex spree after finding his longtime girlfriend in bed with a well-endowed white man.

``The Alchemy of Desire'' by Tarun J. Tejpal (Ecco). Well- known Indian newsman Tejpal serves up a fat, Henry Miller-esqe novel about literary inspiration and sex, in which a writer renovating a house in the Himalayas uncovers the diary of a glamorous American woman's adventures in the subcontinent. He soon falls for this dead, idealized woman, spurning his own very real, very desirable wife.

``The End as I Know It: A Novel of Millennial Anxiety'' by Kevin Shay (Doubleday). Shay, contributor to the hipster literary journal ``McSweeney's,'' revisits the Y2K scare in this quirky story featuring a neurotic puppeteer and children's entertainer who embarks on a cross-country road trip to warn that the end is nigh.

``Spinning Dixie'' by Eric Dezenhall (Thomas Dunne). The author, CEO of an eponymous Washington crisis-management firm, applies his expertise in this broad farce about a disgraced presidential press secretary who tries to help a high-school girlfriend save her Tennessee plantation from her nefarious ex- husband who intends to use it as a toxic waste dump. The solution involves creating a media storm that involves an army of Civil War re-enactors, the National Guard and the promise of Confederate gold.

``The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud'' by Julia Navarro (Bantam). A bestseller abroad, Navarro's entry in the post-``Da Vinci Code'' horse race of religious-themed thrillers starts with a fire at the Turin Cathedral, where Jesus' burial cloth is housed. When the Italian Art Crimes Department investigates, they uncover a pattern of similar suspicious fires, leading to evidence of a longstanding war between the Knights Templar and other secret societies.

``The Black Sun'' by James Twining (HarperCollins). The second in a budding series about former CIA agent and art thief Tom Kirk, who, after an Auschwitz survivor is murdered and his tattooed arm disappears, is recruited to thwart an extremist neo- Nazi group called Kristall Blade from recovering Adolf Eichmann's infamous Hungarian ``gold train'' and uncovering the Russian Amber Room.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Corporate Culture, Silent Cal, Loud Jim: December Nonfiction

Corporate Culture, Silent Cal, Loud Jim: December Nonfiction

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- A company's culture may be invisible, but it pervades every aspect of a business environment, writes Jerome Want in ``Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole'' (St. Martin's).

Want, a former director of Organization Design and Development with Motorola, examines the strategies and orthodoxies at a variety of companies, from Cisco to Harley- Davidson, and defines the predominant corporate cultures, from predatory to bureaucratic to what he dubs ``high-performing New Age.''

He explains how the forward-thinking, environmentally savvy and employee-sensitive corporate culture at Vermont's Green Mountain Coffee Roasters helped transform it from a small regional operation to a nationally recognized brand.

Mature companies such as Xerox and Polaroid, once at the pinnacle of their industries, have suffered from their intransigent corporate cultures. Internal dynamics can have a serious effect on a company's bottom line and may be an elusive but very real indicator of a company's future success or failure.

Other highlights this month include:

``Jim Cramer's Mad Money: Watch TV, Get Rich'' by James J. Cramer (Simon & Schuster). Cramer, the ``Booyah''-bellowing host of CNBC's ``Mad Money,'' distills his investment wisdom in this new book, which promises to explain how he judges a stock in mere seconds during the show's infamous ``Lightning Round,'' what to look out for in CEO and CFO interviews, and why he's so manic on- air.

``About Alice'' by Calvin Trillin (Random House). Trillin's wife, Alice, who often starred as a comic figure in his writing, died on Sept. 11, 2001, at age 63 from complications of lung cancer. Here she gets a moving yet funny homage from her eloquent husband.

``Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything'' by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (Portfolio). Based on a $9 million research project, this book examines how the Internet has empowered the masses to produce, edit and distribute their own content and what this means for companies that are the traditional gatekeepers of information.

``Age Shock and Pension Power: How Finance Is Failing Us'' by Robin Blackburn (Verso). An academic argues that despite the proliferation of investment products, greed and mismanagement in the financial-service industry have undermined the ability of savings and pension funds to support our graying population.

``Calvin Coolidge'' by David Greenberg (Times Books). Greenberg offers a brief biography of the 30th U.S. president, who served from 1923 to 1929 and made business development a platform of his administration, laying the groundwork for future generations of conservative, fiscally minded politicians. It is Coolidge who declared: ``The chief business of the American people is business.''

``Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry'' by Dan Hurley (Broadway Books). Hurley's examination of this $20 billion industry reveals how the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act left the business of vitamins virtually unregulated and, as a consequence, given it free rein to prey on uninformed consumers.

``It's Called Work for a Reason! Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault'' by Larry Winget (Gotham). Another bullying TV talking head, Winget, the host of A&E's ``Big Spender,'' delves into what he sees as right and wrong with businesses. With frequent reminders that companies stress making money, he offers advice on how to take best advantage of a variety of workplace scenarios.

``Next Now: Trends for the Future'' by Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia (Palgrave Macmillan). Salzman, executive vice president at ad agency JWT, and co-author Matathia, a brand consultant, collate trends from across the globe in an attempt to forecast what's coming. Their conclusions aren't likely to wow you. They say, for example, that ``Chindia'' is going to be an economic force. But they can be entertaining.

``The Judges: A Penetrating Exploration of American Courts and of the New Decisions -- Hard Decisions -- They Must Make for a New Millennium'' by Martin Mayer (Truman Talley Books). Mayer took six years to write this expose of the judicial system, which covers everything from the Supreme Court on down to local criminal courts. He concludes that cronyism put many of our 30,000 judges on the bench and a significant percentage needs specialized training.

``Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue'' by Stephanie Mencimer (Free Press). A Washington Monthly reporter tackles the issue of tort reform, rehashing arguments for and against, and comes away with the belief that the biggest beneficiaries of reform are politically conservative corporations in danger of being sued (think of McDonald's and its once scalding hot coffee), while mostly liberal trial lawyers and Joe Citizen lose out.

``American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work'' by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster). This gossipy group portrait of the Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts, delves into their personal rivalries, speculates about their love lives and examines their early form of activism during the period 1840 to 1868.

``Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work'' by Martin Geck (Harcourt). Lucidly written in a style that is accessible to non- musicologists, this biography by an acclaimed German academic devotes lengthy passages to analyzing Bach's renowned technique and why his music so moves listeners.

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