Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness by Guy Maclean Rogers (Random House)

Erudite, engaging and immensely readable, Guy Maclean Rogers' new biography of Alexander the Great may not contribute much new material to an ancient fascination, but the vividness of the writing combined with the author's passion for his subject makes for a gripping read. Though the book tends to race through Alexander's life at the expense of further detail, it is still a more patient account than other recent biographies rushed to stores in time for the movie. From his mounting of Philip II's incorrigible horse as a boy to his legendary pursuit of Darius throughout Persia and subsequent endeavors to avenge his murder (only because Alexander would have liked the honor of killing Darius himself), every quirk and rumor of Alexander's personality is explored here. It is hard to say anything necessarily "new" when no new sources of information exist beyond those of contemporary historians who continue to interpret the documents of the same handful of ancient writers: Curtius, Justin, Diodorus, Plutarch and others. When a chairman of the Department of History at Wesleyan University with a Ph.D. from Princeton tosses yet another biography into the fray, it is usually an attempt to dispute the conclusions of other biographers. Rogers does plenty of that here. Downplaying accounts of Alexander's homosexuality while attempting to understand his bloody rampages across the known world within the context of his times, Rogers objects to notions of Alexander as the Hitler or Stalin of the ancient world, often pointing to the equally brutal tactics of the king's contemporaries. Admittedly, Rogers tends to apologize for Alexander's brutality where he really ought to leave it up to the reader to decide. An ability to let the facts speak for themselves is what makes Peter Green's Alexander of Macedon the preeminent contemporary study of Alexander. But if Rogers' book lacks the authority of a less-enamored chronicle, it makes up for this flaw with its informed eloquence. Rogers has given us a book flooded with the warm and knowledgeable passion of a scholar who loves his job as much as he loves his subject. If that is a flaw, I sure wouldn't mind being accused of it myself. -- Gianmarc Manzione

Blue Blood by Ed Conlon (Riverhead Books)

Blue Blood is an autobiographical account written by New York Police Detective Ed Conlon, beginning with his rookie year in 1995. This memoir looks back on Conlon's wide-ranging NYPD experiences, first as a housing officer in Police Service Area 7, then in Narcotics in PSA 7 and finally as a detective in Robbery in the 44th Precinct, all within the borough of the Bronx. It is perhaps the finest, most eloquent portrayal of life on "the Job," disdaining heroics for the give-and-take of unforgiving streets. After graduating from Harvard, the restless Conlon naturally gravitated toward police work, given his family background in law enforcement -- his father was an NYPD officer and later an FBI agent, and several family members were also New York City cops, including an uncle and a great-grandfather. An intelligent man who can combine the grandiosity of police theory with the nuts-and-bolts daily grind of the street cop, Conlon articulates not merely the gruff law officer's take on things, complete with police vernacular and acronyms, but he's unafraid to offer a glimpse into the gamut of emotions that cops go through, as well. One learns quickly that the Job is frequently mundane and fraught with red tape; that the "bosses" hold their officers accountable at all times; and that most cops hope for a good collar, which usually translates into a gun arrest. Conlon is a dedicated policeman with good instincts, and he makes enough collars (including successful gun arrests) and has connections with the right people in the department -- often the only way to rise up through the NYPD hierarchy -- that he achieves detective rank in one of the city's busiest precincts. Blue Blood is filled with accounts of frustration (a gun raid that turns out bogus, due to a lying informer), horror (having friends killed in the World Trade Center attacks) and elation (the chance to work directly for the police commissioner). Recognizing that one can best understand today's NYPD by glimpsing its historical roots, Conlon gives enough back story to help the reader appreciate both how "dirty" this department has been, and how it became the premier police department in the United States, if not the world. Conlon is honest and forthright with both the "bad" and "good" guys he comes across on the Job. He's no less straightforward with the reader, making us realize the absolute worst and best of the NYPD. Ed Conlon showcases the humanity of the NYPD in all of its glory and with its abundant foibles, and the reader gains a truer sense of what it really means to carry a gun and a shield -- and the awesome responsibility it puts upon men and women who, more often than not, are just like you and me. Blue Blood will serve as a sociological bible of New York City police enforcement for years to come. -- Anthony Rainone

Canada's House: Rideau Hall and the Invention of a Canadian Home by Margaret MacMillan, Marjorie Harris and Anne L. Desjardins (Knopf Canada)

Canada's House is unexpected. On the surface of things, what could be more dry? A biography, in essence if not in fact, of the official residence of Canada's governor general "who," writes co-author Margaret MacMillan, "as representative of the Crown in Canada, acts as our head of state, our commander-in-chief, indeed as the figurehead of our democracy." Getting excited yet? But Canada House is a beautiful book. In fact, due to a perfect blending and separating of the talents of this small set of very different authors, Canada House is more like three beautiful books, bound together by a common theme and... well... a common binding. Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919, winner of the 2003 Governor General's Award for non-fiction, is given the first third of the book. Here we are introduced to Rideau Hall, its history and its current occupants, their excellencies the governor general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, who have spearheaded great changes to Rideau Hall and its grounds since taking residence in 1999. Marjorie Harris, editor of Gardening Life magazine and the author of over 10 gardening books handles the second section: on the gardens and grounds of Rideau Hall. This section, enhanced by many beautiful photos, deals with the development, history, present and future of this important Canadian garden. The third section was written by food, travel and wine writer Anne L. Desjardins and deals with the kitchens and foods of Rideau Hall's present and past. "What does Canada taste like?" Desjardins asks. "It tastes of the land. It doesn't disguise its ingredients." Desjardins not only talks about the food of Rideau Hall: she shows with several signature recipes from Rideau Hall's contemporary kitchen. Any one of these three sections could have been developed into a book on its own, but together in this brilliantly produced package, they create a significant whole. If you're looking for the definitive work on Rideau Hall, this is it. A perfect -- and perfectly Canadian -- book. -- Sienna Powers

Candyfreak by Steve Almond (Algonquin Books)

Of all the books I read in 2004, the only one that sent me straight to the dentist's chair was Steve Almond's "candy memoir." As I sat there under the drill, gagging on bits of my old filling (which had to be removed to so that the new, spongy holes in my tooth could be filled) and pondering the curious way that little hook-shaped suction tube liked to snag my anesthetized cheek, I thought to myself, "God, I love Steve Almond!" I have him to thank for the new holes in my teeth and I couldn't be happier. If it wasn't for him, I would never have rediscovered the joys of the Idaho Spud (shaped like a Twinkie, it's a chocolate-and-coconut-covered lump made of marshmallow filling flavored with maple, vanilla and dried cocoa), nor would I have made new chocolate friends with Valomilks and Twin Bings ("Imagine, if you will, two brown lumps, about the size of golf balls, roughly textured, and stuck to one another like Siamese twins. The lumps are composed of crushed peanuts and a chocolate compound. Inside each of the lumps is a bright pink, cherry-flavored filling"). Almond takes the reader on a tour of independent candy companies across America -- the kind of family-owned companies that are often held together by a wing, a prayer, and a big vat of sugar. Candyfreak is the funniest, most endearing book I've read in a long time. Almond, whose previous book was the short-story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, is spot-on in his evocative descriptions of not only the Candy of Our Youth, but in the way we lived back in the 1970s. He rhapsodizes about how candy triggers nostalgic secretions in our brains then goes on to describe how he burned heads off Gummy Bears in his ninth-grade science class ("I loved the way the little gummy bear heads would sizzle and smoke, and the syrupy consistency of the resulting mess."). He talks about Halloween with the kind of reverence some folks reserve for Christmas ("There's something incredibly liberating about a holiday that encourages children to take candy from strangers."). This is candy porn for the undiscriminating palate. -- David Abrams

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)

That one of America's most elusive icons has penned one of its most revealing self-portraits is surprising enough. That the book teems with the ferocity, distinctiveness and wisdom of an American literary classic is beyond the expectations of even some of his most devoted students. That word "student" becomes especially appropriate as the first volume of Dylan's memoirs unfolds with a litany of literary allusions, historical references and insight, and an amount of experience reserved for ten lifetimes. While some of that may not be unexpected, the vividness of Dylan's many character studies, the precision and clarity of his illuminating bursts of historical reflections and the breadth of his rich reading experience make for a life whose unique fullness is only partially revealed in the man's music. As with any autobiography, Dylan conveniently selects the fragments of his life he is willing to discuss. His tumultuous early relationships with Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez, for example, are quickly shrugged off. Even less is said of Dylan's most lauded works, from all those classic early songs to Blood on the Tracks and beyond. Similarly, the book itself is arranged into a series of prolonged recollections that jump over whole decades and retreat back again, avoiding the kind of linear narrative one might expect of a memoir. But from a man who infuriates as easily as he satisfies, such idiosyncrasy is hardly surprising. It is in the few windows of his life through which Dylan chooses to gaze that the book's intensity explodes. From an extended examination of the sessions that led to 1989's Oh Mercy to a vulnerable look at the disillusionment that nearly derailed his creative and personal life, Dylan's candor leaves little to the imagination. Most appealing of all is his ability to maintain throughout the book a sense of something larger than himself, a modesty that makes for a particularly refreshing and fascinating read. Some of the best parts of the book have nothing to do with the man himself, and read like stretches of lost prose from some of the many literary masters to which he so frequently alludes. At turns a great American road novel, landmark historical document and professorial lecture, Chronicles, Volume One is as colorful an addition to American letters as Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory or Kerouac's On the Road. -- Gianmarc Manzione

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard W. French (Alfred A. Knopf)

Howard French spent much of the 1990s reporting from the West Africa bureau of The New York Times. In A Continent for the Taking he revisits and expounds on the events he covered -- including the outbreak of the Ebola virus, the Rwanda genocide and its fallout, the overthrow of Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko and the ensuing violence in the new Congo. As you might expect from a Times correspondent, French has an expert's understanding of the overlapping histories and political complexities of the region and he writes about these difficult subjects with clarity and poise. But whereas the conventions of daily journalism mandated balanced coverage, here French is free to editorialize. He takes a fierce moral stance against the West, particularly the United States, for its role in fomenting and exacerbating many of Africa's postcolonial conflicts. Even after the end of the Cold War, French observes, Clinton's Administration "was still placing its biggest bets on 'strongmen' who gave the appearance of maintaining order, while in reality sowing the seeds of future destabilization at home and in their surrounding regions." French lays out the crimes committed on the watch of Liberia's Charles Taylor, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Congo's Laurent Kabila (who was installed in power following a coup against Mobutu and was assassinated in 2001). He also documents the damage done by Western leaders: indifference in instances of genocide, intrusion in cases of selfish interest. French's reporting on these regimes and the states that abetted them is unsparing. His account of the situation, otherwise brutal, is tempered by passages that reveal deep admiration for the natural landscape and profound sympathy for the victims. This is a wise, haunting book, mandatory reading for any historian of Africa. -- Mark Sorkin

A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions by Peter Robb

Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil is an engrossing book, weaving the author's experiences in Brazil over 20 years with the story of the murder of P. C. Farias, former advisor to the Brazilian president. Notoriously corrupt, Farias was killed with his girlfriend in 1996. Robb presents this lurid story alongside his own encounters with violence and the underside of society in Brazil. The atmosphere could be described as tropical gothic. The author's fluid style and vivid descriptions draw the reader into the details of Brazilian life and show the layers beyond the violence and corruption of newspaper reports. This is an excellent book, combining the best aspects of travel writing, memoir and investigative journalism. -- Katrina Gulliver

Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro 1808-1821 by Patrick Wilcken (Bloomsbury)

Another view of Brazil is seen in Empire Adrift, by Patrick Patrick Wilcken. This is the story of the Portuguese court in exile in Rio de Janeiro from 1808-1821. Fleeing the advance of Napoleon, the Portuguese king and all his ministers and retainers abandoned Lisbon for the colonial city. Soon construction of a new palace was underway, the lavish royal establishment facilitated by Brazil's massive slave trade. The extravagances are remarkable and many of the individuals featured display a "let them eat cake" disengagement from economic reality. (The Portuguese empire was in dire financial straits.) Regarded as a footnote in the histories of Napoleonic Europe, the sojourn of the Portuguese court in Brazil has often been overlooked. This is a fascinating story of the development of Brazilian society as well as the diplomatic tensions in Europe in the early 19th century. -- Katrina Gulliver

Ginny Good by Gerard Jones (Monkfish Book Publishing Company)

Months after reading Ginny Good, I still see the vivid images author Gerard Jones shared with his readers in the book. It's a world I didn't experience firsthand: San Francisco around the time of the Summer of Love. Jones brings a sort of careless insouciance to Ginny Good. An early hippie devil-may-care ef-em-if-they-can't-take-a-joke attitude that pretends to mask deeper feelings. Pretends, of course, because it's clear that Jones cares deeply about everything that befalls him and Ginny and the others we meet in Ginny Good. And he wants us to know he cares, but he wants us to find our own way to that conclusion. It's this intelligent respect for the intelligence of his reader that makes Ginny Good work on several levels. Ginny Good is an excruciating coming of age at a time when the world was falling apart. Masterfully, Jones touches on the politics, the people and the way it felt to breathe the air of the Haight. -- Linda L. Richards

Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times by Geoffrey Nunberg (PublicAffairs)

Be forewarned: anyone who aspires to be a wit had best first read through Geoffrey Nunberg's Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. This collection of the Stanford linguist's essays on the idiosyncrasies of our modern American lexicon points to hundreds of areas where the same words are nearly suffocated from overuse, where eponyms like "Orwellian" have taken on an almost unrecognizable life of their own and where horizons like Google are pushing language into all kinds of unknown territories. Nunberg eschews any tone of imperious judgment and instead approaches issues like the ascendance of "legend" over "hero" or how the capital "F" dropped out of fascism with the thirsty curiosity of a student. By reading the news with a semantic microscope, or stopping to check trends like when pro-TEST became PRO-test, Nunberg offers insights about our society and history more astute than many of the recent and more overt attempts to generalize about our national character. The best part of this breezy anthology of his commentary is how he dives into the minutiae of politics without getting, well, political and offering a way for red- and blue-staters alike to reflect on our shared linguistic culture. -- Molly Farrell

Hatchet Jobs: Cutting Through Contemporary Literature by Dale Peck (New Press)

Dale Peck may be a novelist, but he's better known for destroying, rather than creating, works of fiction. In this lively collection of essays, the bad-boy critic who notoriously pronounced Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation" aims his poison pen at contemporary luminaries such as David Foster Wallace, Julian Barnes and Philip Roth. He also chops away at prevailing literary trends and niche genres, critiquing, for example, the stifling effect of identity politics on gay and black women writers. Peck never misses an opportunity to dazzle his readers, some of whom may wonder whether he's more interested in measuring books or showing off his mastery of the high-art takedown. Originally published in The New Republic, The London Review of Books and The Village Voice, the pieces are rife with erudition and witty barbs -- not to mention snide, aggressive attacks that blur the distinction between charged rhetoric and schoolyard taunts. It's an important distinction, worth preserving, and when Peck crosses the line, he undermines his authority and risks alienating himself from his readers. Nevertheless, he comes across as a redoubtable critic who cares passionately about maintaining high standards for literature -- and he expresses his ideas with a great deal of brio. -- Mark Sorkin

Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity by Hal Niedzviecki (Penguin Canada)

The author that January Magazine called a "poster boy for slackerism," (to his face) back in 2000, has had a change of heart. On his 30th birthday, Hal Niedzviecki's parents gave him a Hallmark card "depicting a crowd scene -- dour grey men in suits .... Superimposed on the picture is the announcement: 'Conformity -- proudly serving painfully boring people since time began.' Inside it says: 'Happy birthday to a non-conformist.'" The card -- though lovingly and thoughtfully given -- made Niedzviecki's head reel. Niedzviecki had discovered that his "primary behaviour pattern is, essentially, obsolete. In a world that craves Hallmark greeting cards about over-turning the grey-suited enemies of individuality, the nonconformist has lost his identity. Far from being weird and rebellious, he becomes normal and placid." In short, Niedzviecki's life -- and his understanding of same -- had been turned upside down. Being Niedzviecki, however, the oft labeled guru of indie culture didn't hide his head at this startling revelation. Instead he wrote a book about the extinction of the non-conformist and the rise of individuality as the new conformity. Like his previous book, We Want Some Too, Niedzviecki's book is shockingly fun, often funny and always right on target. -- Lincoln Cho

How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson (Hamish Hamilton)

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler magazine, presents his guide to laziness in How to Be Idle. Tracing 24 hours, from eight am ("Waking Up is Hard to Do"), each chapter looks at another opportunity for idleness. In Hodgkinson's view these opportunities are underused due to the pressures of modern life. Long lunches, convalescences and leisurely strolls: these mark the life of an idler, a lifestyle Hodgkinson seeks to encourage. Through this book are quotes from historical idlers, from Omar Khayyam to Walter Benjamin; Hodgkinson traces the history of attitudes to slacking off. This is the book for anyone who has ever hit the 'snooze' button on their alarm. -- Katrina Gulliver

The Irish Game by Matthew Hart (Viking Canada)

The Irish Game unfolds like something out of Hollywood: a cagey thief with ties to the Dublin underworld, an Irish country lord and his lady and a theft of such magnitude, it is almost above value. Though Matthew Hart's beautifully-wrought book focuses on a famous theft from Russborough House in Ireland in 1986, he takes us on a fast-paced and fascinating tour of the world of high priced art thievery. "Compare to a like amount of cash" Hart points out, "art is pitifully vulnerable. The duke would not have hung forty-five million dollars in banknotes beside the stairs in an isolated castle for anyone with six pounds to come in and see." Hart's book is as much of a treasure as the famous works he writes about, The Irish Game is true crime writing with a literary touch: a heady combination and, in this case, an interesting one. -- Adrian Marks

Joe's War: My Father Decoded by Annette Kobak (Alfred A. Knopf)

In her previous book, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt (1989), Annette Kobak wrote a well-received work about an enigmatic and much-traveled person's strange life-odyssey. In her second book, she's done much the same thing -- but this time, the subject of her biographical scrutiny is her own secretive father. Joseph Kobak (as it turns out) was born in Czechoslovakia and served as a soldier in the Polish army during World War II. In England, he was a low-level radio spy, working with codes. In a very real sense, Joe Kobak was a man without a country; but his daughter comes to feel Joe belonged to a bigger, "liberating realm of people who have periodically not had a state to be in, but who keep their values, their vocabulary and their wit." In relating her father's individual story, Annette Kobak recounts also the sorrowful saga of much of Central Europe during the 20th century: not a happy tale, but one that needs telling. Kobak tells it with remarkable grace and skill. -- Tom Nolan

My Life by Bill Clinton (Alfred A. Knopf)

During Bill Clinton's two terms in the White House, the press periodically noted his appetite for presidential histories. One might well assume, then, that when this premier policy wonk of our time sat down to compose the record of his life, he had in mind The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, which the Civil War general-turned-chief executive wrote -- in longhand -- during the last 15 months of his life, at the behest of none other than Mark Twain. Now, of course Clinton (despite his recent heart surgery) is likely nowhere near the death bed that Grant was approaching as he took up pen and paper in 1884; but the 42nd president's respect for the 18th's process was evident in the fact that Clinton, too, drafted his recollections, large and small, in longhand, finishing just before this book was supposed to go to press. That, though, is the only realistic comparison one can make between the two works, since Memoirs is mostly a military account, while My Life is a political one -- a brief, in its very personalized way, on the last half century of American governance. Anyone who watched the amiable, brilliant but still imperfect Clinton lead the world's foremost superpower during the 1990s, or who has since read some of the works written by his then-White House colleagues, can surely anticipate the topics to be covered here. However, Clinton doesn't merely record events; neither does he seek primarily to defend his actions and decisions in print, for the benefit of history (as some of his recent predecessors have tried to do). Instead, he's written a big (999 pages long!), generous, sprawling, insightful, sometimes humble and often appreciative chronicle of a life spent trying to overcome adversity and then use the lessons he learned to help others. There's an unguarded honesty and simplicity to My Life that is evident in Clinton's memories of his mother and alcoholic stepfather, his admiration for world leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Nelson Mandela, and even his avowed confusion as to why a person like Kenneth Starr, the Republican special counsel whose investigation of a failed Arkansas land deal grew into a sexual witch hunt, so adamantly pursued his political destruction. The former Democratic president's untiring partisan critics will undoubtedly find in My Life more to dislike about this garrulous man and gifted pol, because that's just what they do. But those of us who prefer our presidents to be engaged with reality, nuanced in their decision making and concerned with the well-being of every American (not only the wealthy ones), will see in My Life more confirmation of what we already believed: that Bill Clinton was an uncommon man and unusually well-prepared president, who despite his personal foibles and even in the face of scurrilous attacks on his character, never lost sight of what he thought -- after a lifetime's experience in politics -- was the right thing to do. There's no telling yet whether the success of this first book (which Larry McMurtry called, in his New York Times book review, "the richest American presidential autobiography") will lead Clinton into a second career as a writer, but we can only benefit if it does. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld (Schocken)

In his terrifying and beautiful new memoir, The Story of a Life, Aharon Appelfeld does more than tell his life story (although, with his elliptical style, which can be rather like a narrative form of Swiss cheese, it sometimes seems as if he does less than that, too), the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor battles history itself. As the author of more than 20 novels, Appelfeld is known for stories set on the margins of the Holocaust, but usually well before. In this, his first memoir, he is forced, once and for all, to confront his own experience. Born in the small town of Czernowitz in what is now the Ukraine, he watched as his mother, grandmother and scores of other Jews were murdered with pitchforks and kitchen knives by invading Nazis and Romanians. He and his father were herded into a ghetto and later force-marched to a labor camp. His father died there, but Appelfeld, just 10 years old, escaped into the woods, living on the run for three years. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine. This is not, however, the breathless adventure story suggested by the book's dust-jacket copy, where overwrought phrases like "extraordinary survival and rebirth" impose a narrative arc that doesn't exist. Instead, Appelfeld provides a series of wonderfully written and compelling vignettes interspersed with meditations on the difficulty of remembering. He gives us a boyhood home where there is "more quiet than talking," and he gives us the camp not at all. (There is a camp, and it is gruesome, but is it Appelfeld's? He doesn't say.) There are also a few heartbreaking glimpses of the ghetto, where, he tells us, "children and madmen were friends." -- Brendan Wolfe

True Lies by Anthony Lappe and Stephen Marshall (Plume Books)

Writer and television producer Anthony Lappe entered the political book fray with True Lies in the autumn of 2004. This 33-year-old renegade journalist, along with his partners Stephen Marshall and Ian Inaba, have put together a riveting read that covers a wide range of issues including depleted uranium in Iraq to the fall of congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. When it comes to the corporate media, Lappe is thankful he is not part of it. He enjoys the freedom and creativity that the Guerrilla News Network allows him. Articles such as, "War Crimes, then and now," give Lappe journalistic license to delve deeper into subjects than most editors at major daily newspapers would allow. -- Robert J. Nebel

When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences by Eric Alterman (Viking)

Besides the obvious roadblock of his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, the biggest hurdle George W. Bush faced in capturing a second White House term was the significant percentage of Americans -- including many who'd cast their ballots for him in 2000 -- who simply don't trust Bush anymore. All of this Republican's other main impediments -- the anemic U.S. economy, resistance to his far-right agenda, skyrocketing budget and trade deficits, a shrinking job market and the bloody disaster in Iraq -- can be related to doubts about Bush's candor, which calls into question his character. People know Bush isn't really a straight shooter or a strong, decisive leader -- he just plays one on TV. They know that behind Bush's aw-shucks façade and manifold malapropisms lies a calculating politician who audience-tests his proposals as assiduously as Bill Clinton ever did, and that he takes every opportunity to gain partisan advantage, even if it means spreading fear among the populace or flip-flopping on myriad issues. Like Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, Bush faces a credibility gap of his own making. (So much for his campaign vow four years ago to restore "honor and integrity" to the White House.) Americans have come to assume that Bush's words run contrary to reality, whether he's talking about finding weapons of mass destruction, strengthening the U.S. dollar, or protecting Social Security and the environment. But he's not the first American chief executive who deceived to achieve, as Eric Alterman makes crystal clear in When Presidents Lie. Eschewing examination of Richard Nixon's Watergate whoppers (which have been thoroughly recounted elsewhere) and Clinton's dissembling over his adulterous behavior (which was at heart a personal matter, "hardly comparable to lying about peace treaties or the causes of war"), Alterman examines here four post-World War II presidential untruths and the repercussions that resulted from them: Franklin Roosevelt's lie about how the Yalta Accords would secure the peace in Europe (which set the stage for McCarthyism and half a century of anti-Soviet anxiety); John Kennedy's covered-up compromise to end the 1962 Cuban missile crisis (which left the USSR dangerously humiliated); Johnson's exaggerations about a 1964 attack on U.S. warships in Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin (which moved the country deeper into the Vietnam War and prevented LBJ from fulfilling the promise of his Great Society); and Ronald Reagan's lies regarding his policies in Central America (which culminated in the Iran-contra scandal). Alterman blames these incidents, in part, on illusions about America's moral superiority and the inevitability of democratic ideals, and he warns that falsehoods, once loosed upon the nation or the world, are impossible to counter with education, and unpredictable in their consequences. Furthermore, he shows readers how the news media have facilitated and abetted presidential prevarications, to the detriment of all. What may be the most remarkable but disheartening conclusion of Alterman's study (which evolved from his doctoral dissertation) is that "lies of political convenience" aren't always destructive to the reputation of their perpetrators -- indeed, three out of the four presidents he focuses on here didn't suffer severe or permanent damage to their standings (the exception being Johnson). And on the other hand, resolute honesty doesn't guarantee a chief exec lasting renown (consider the case of Jimmy Carter). Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and the author of What Liberal Media? (2003), concludes that Americans are now accepting of much greater mendacity from their leaders than they ever have been -- which has made possible what he calls George W. Bush's "post-truth presidency." Alterman told Philadelphia Weekly a while back that "Bush combines dishonesty with ideological fanaticism, incompetence and corruption. This is the worst combination imaginable and the worst presidency in the history of the United States, in my view." But why should a modern American president be honest if lying gets things done and telling the truth wins him (or her) no lasting credit? That's just too depressing to even contemplate. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki (Doubleday)

Call it behavioral economics for the totally uninterested. New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki's contagious optimism for mankind's inherent intelligence -- if we only trust democratic groupings, rather than cults of individual charisma -- makes this lecture in sociology and economics provocative and fun. At once excoriating the losses we incur through "groupthink" and paying homage to the trust and self-interest capitalism requires, The Wisdom of Crowds is a reasoned meditation on the delicately evolved organism that is modern society. His argument sounds a little Pollyanna-esque: while most people would assume that when you aggregate everyone's intelligence (even when it sometimes includes superstition or whim) you'll generate a mean level of innovation or acuity, the group actually ends up with the best possible solution. In his words, humans are "programmed to be smart." Though a cynic would be tempted to fire off examples challenging this assertion, Surowiecki's barrage of studies and historical examples humbles any skeptic. The extent of his research is quietly breathtaking -- quietly because his anecdotes ranging from NFL coaching strategies to why groups of strangers stop to look up at the sky easily blend together with friendly, conversational wit. This book does for market systems what Eats, Shoots, and Leaves also did this year for grammar. -- Molly Farrell

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