Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mailer's Hitler, Clarke's Thriller, Amis's Gulag: New Fiction

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Norman Mailer, the 83-year-old colossus of American letters, returns this month with his first novel in more than a decade: ``The Castle in the Forest'' (Random House, $26.95), a fictional account of Adolf Hitler's youth as filtered through a Freudian lens.

Narrated by Dieter, one of Satan's minions who serves as Hitler's supernatural mentor, it is a bilious journey through the Fuhrer's first 13 years, one that begins with the moment of Hitler's violent conception by his creepy, incestuous parents. It lingers voyeuristically on infant Adolf's bodily functions, his parents' grim relationship and episodes of youthful wickedness.

The book may not be as epic as ``The Executioner's Song'' or ``Harlot's Ghost,'' but it is as provocative and nearly as brilliant -- a perfect bookend to his 1997 ``The Gospel According to the Son,'' which portrayed Jesus as a confused young man guided by voices.

Dieter, who counsels the Fuhrer throughout World War II while disguised as an SS intelligence officer, reminds the reader, ``Saintliness is present in everyone, even among the worst of the worst.'' It's a bit doubtful in this case.

Other highlights this month:

``House of Meetings'' by Martin Amis (Knopf, $23). Amis wrote openly about his disgust with Stalinist Russia in his 2002 memoir ``Koba the Dread.'' He revisits the subject in this novel about a wealthy octogenarian Russian expat touring the Gulags, where he and his brother were imprisoned for 14 years, and reminiscing about their shared love for a once-vivacious Jewish woman.

``Surveillance'' by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon, $24). Raban's timely disquisition on the fragility of truth and identity in the information age stars a Seattle magazine writer who discovers a bestselling memoir is a fake, while, in the background, a frenzied Department of Homeland Security is taking dishonorable, drastic measures to protect the country from terrorism.

``Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name'' by Vendela Vida (Ecco, $23.95). Like Vida's first novel (2003's ``And Now You Can Go'') this is the story of a seemingly insensate young woman whose life becomes unmoored: After the man she believed to be her father dies, 28-year-old Clarissa leaves her fiance and journeys to the Arctic to search for her real father among the Sami people of Lapland.

``Exit A'' by Anthony Swofford (Scribner, $25). The former sniper who penned the superb Desert Storm memoir ``Jarhead'' takes his first shot at fiction in this uneven but compelling thriller about an army brat living at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and his criminally minded girlfriend -- the daughter of the base commander -- who repeatedly lures him into the Japanese underworld.

``Ice'' by Vladimir Sorokin (New York Review Books, $23.95). This trippy satire from one of Russia's most talented writers depicts the lives of three recruits to a bizarre religious sect: the ``heart speakers'' who beat acolytes with ice-covered hammers and seek spiritual salvation through orgasm.

``Travels in the Scriptorium'' by Paul Auster (Holt, $22). A slim, self-referential meta-fiction -- more a hall of rumors than a novel -- in which a puzzled elderly man sitting in a room discovers a manuscript called ``Travels in the Scriptorium,'' itself the story of a similar elderly man sitting in a room, written by a character who long ago disappeared from Auster's debut work, ``The New York Trilogy.''

``Skylight Confessions'' by Alice Hoffman (Little, Brown, $24.99)) In Hoffman's new magic-realist ghost story, a girl loses both of her parents and vows to marry the first man she meets, who turns out to be a -- a chilly Yalie living in his parents' glass and steel house. She bears him a son and dies when the boy is young, only to return to haunt the callous father.

``Returning to Earth'' by Jim Harrison (Grove, $24). Harrison's meditative novel uses four narrators to recount the death from Lou Gehrig's disease of a 45-year-old Chippewa-Finnish man and its impact on his family, some of whom find solace in the Chippewa belief that his spirit has returned to earth to inhabit a bear.

``Breakpoint'' by Richard A. Clarke (Putnam, $25.95). Former U.S. counterterrorism czar delivers a convoluted techno-thriller set in 2012, portraying terrorist attacks on U.S. communications networks systems to cripple the development of ``Living Software'' -- a self-perpetuating virtual computer program designed to police cyberspace -- and distract from an even more insidious plot.

``Charity Girl'' by Michael Lowenthal (Houghton Mifflin, $24). Lowenthal uses a villainous episode in American history -- the WWI-era internment of some 30,000 women thought to have venereal diseases -- as the basis for this story of a young Jewish girl in Boston who flees an arranged marriage into the arms of an infected soldier, is imprisoned and finds salvation in feminism and rebellion.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

$35 Billion Giveaway, Friedman Bio, Pepsi: January Nonfiction

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- In 2007 America's 68,000 philanthropic foundations are expected to give away $35 billion. Yet they are among the least accountable institutions at work in the economy and little is known about the decision-making of the trustees responsible for so much cash.

In ``The Foundation: A Great American Secret'' (PublicAffairs, $27.95), subtitled ``How Private Wealth Is Changing the World,'' Duke University professor Joel L. Fleishman penetrates this opaque culture. His central question is: Considering the tremendous tax breaks afforded charitable donations to foundations, amounting to nearly $20 billion in lost tax revenue per year, is the public getting its money's worth?

Fleishman surveys nearly 100 different foundation-funded projects and offers a dozen detailed case studies. He comes away believing foundations represent the best opportunity for creating an ``independent, multi-power-center society.''

Fleishman finds that foundations generally spend their money responsibly, though all too often they lack an adequate strategy to achieve their lofty goals. They also come up short on accountability and don't communicate well and, as a consequence, are viewed as arrogant and aloof.

Other highlights this month include:

``Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition in Business'' by John Newhouse (Knopf, $26.95). A blow-by-blow account of the evolution of the two giants of the modern airliner industry and their seesawing fortunes in the international market after years of mismanagement.

``Milton Friedman: A Biography'' by Lanny Ebenstein (Palgrave Macmillan, $27.95). The first full-length biography of the Nobel Prize winner who died in November is a surprisingly readable, succinct portrait of the combative economist. It tracks his development, from his early years as a Keynes-influenced theorist to his transformation into a champion of laissez-faire capitalism.

``On the Wealth of Nations'' by P.J. O'Rourke (Atlantic Monthly, $21.95). The satirist rereads Adam Smith's thumb sucker on economic theory ``so you don't have to'' and concludes he's still relevant in the age of outsourcing and the service economy. Long stretches, however, read like ``Modern Maturity in Urdu.''

``The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business'' by Stephanie Capparell (Free Press, $25). A chronicle of how in the late 1940s and 50s Pepsi became one of the first major American corporations to hire black executives. The company started recruiting African- American salesmen to push their cola to the African-American market in an effort to outmaneuver Coke, the dominant company with ties to Georgia's racist political machine.

``Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media'' by Eric Klinenberg (Metropolitan Books, $26). As conglomerates subsume the majority of local radio and television stations, stockholders may cheer but the general public suffers, says Klinenberg, in this argumentative examination of the aftermath of media deregulation and the subsequent consolidation.

``Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die'' by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, $24.95). Fans of counterintuitive business books, such as ``Freakonomics'' and ``The Tipping Point,'' will enjoy this entertaining new volume that uses urban legends and bogus public health scares to explain why some stories and ideas are more memorable than others, especially when used in advertising, sales and employee development.

``A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder; How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place'' by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. (Little, Brown, $25.99). Another counterintuitive tome in which a Columbia University B-school professor and a journalist argue against the organization gurus who assert that tight governance makes for best practice. Instead, they encourage a freewheeling approach they assert will result in more creativity and serendipitous innovation.

``The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America'' by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books, $25.95). The legal affairs editor at the New Republic examines how four pairs of men -- sometimes working at cross-purposes -- transformed the law of the land: John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson; Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Marshall Harlan; Hugo Black and William O. Douglas; and Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist.

``Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue'' by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (Atlantic Monthly, $35). This harrowing disaster tale describes how Admiral ``Bull'' Halsey and the U.S. Pacific fleet lost three destroyers and nearly 800 men in 1944, not to Japanese dive bombers but to Typhoon Cobra, a storm that produced 90-foot waves and 150-mph winds.