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The Ancestor's Tale
by Richard Dawkins
Published by Mariner Books
674 pages, 2005

In the captivating The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins traces evolution backwards: what he calls our concestor, the common ancestor we all -- all living creatures -- share. Starting with humans and ending with eubacteria, his work is nothing less than a tour of what might be called God's plan, an illuminating, startling and sometimes funny look at where We've been. His point, I think, is perhaps to intimate where we're going, but even without the message, this Canterbury-styled amble through evolution is written in an easy, accessible style that belies Dawkins' obviously brilliant mind. This guy knows a lot, more than a lot, more than you and I do. And he shares it with a subtlety, a kindness, indeed a grace that is stunning. The Ancestor's Tale is essential reading for anyone who does. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Children's Blizzard
by David Laskin
Published by HarperPerennial
336 pages, 2005

Given that 275,000 people perished in the tsunami that walloped Southeast Asia and India on December 6, 2004, the deaths of 250 to 500 individuals during a ferocious snowstorm way back on January 12, 1888, may seem trifling. Yet with The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin leaves readers feeling hardly less flabbergasted by the results of that historical tempest that howled across the Dakota Territory, Nebraska and Minnesota on what had begun as an unseasonably warm day, freezing cattle solid where they stood, burying landmarks that might have led disoriented farmers to safety, and killing children who'd only just been dismissed from their country schools. The apathetic brutality of Mother Nature is what would endure in the memories of prairie dwellers who survived the horizontal snows and 40-below temperatures of that day. Many impecunious immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany had been lured to America's heartland by promises of soil "so black and rich that as somebody said, you had only 'to tickle it with a plow, and it would laugh with a beautiful harvest.'" The 1888 blizzard didn't simply rob late-coming pioneers of their families; it lay waste to the very foundations of their hope. Had the national weather-forecasting agency of that era -- the U.S. Army Signal Corps, with its closest office in St. Paul, Minnesota -- been less mired in politics and procedures, and better able to post prompt warnings of the storm, there's a chance that casualty statistics could have been reduced, but no guarantee. As it was, fathers died wrapping their offspring in their arms, girls and boys lost limbs to frostbite, and even some folks who lived through the meteorological disaster later succumbed, their hearts stopping as they were warmed too quickly. Laskin notes that as a result of this blizzard, coupled with subsequent droughts and financial downturns, "over 60 percent" of pioneer clans abandoned the Plains States by the late 1890s. Told through the awed, disbelieving eyes of storm victims as well as the Signal Corps' beleaguered honcho in St. Paul, The Children's Blizzard (originally published in hardcover last year) recounts a poignant, heartbreaking chapter in American history. Although this book is a bit too rife with Johanns and Oles to make distinguishing its myriad players easy, Laskin (who also wrote the 1997 study of Pacific Northwest weather, Rains All the Time) draws on first-hand accounts of the snowstorm to produce an intimate, human-scale tale of climatic cataclysm that can only be termed "chilling." -- J. Kingston Pierce

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
by Melanie Rehak
Published by Harcourt
384 pages, 2005

This has been a rather remarkable year for classic Midwestern girl gumshoe Nancy Drew, with at least two prose novels and an expanding line of original graphic stories being inspired by the titian-haired teenage detective. In Girl Sleuth, poet and critic Rehak investigates the real-life trio of characters who gave Nancy her start: Edward Stratemeyer (who birthed Nancy back in 1929) and his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, along with journalist Mildred Wirt Benson, who developed the authorial pseudonym (later adopted by others) of "Carolyn Keene" and, through her ghostwriting, put Nancy in peril for decades. Rehak does a fine job of acquainting readers with 20th-century book-publishing history, as well as explaining Ms. Drew's longevity and acceptance by later feminists. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Islands in the Salish Sea: A Community Atlas,
edited by Sheila Harrington and Judi Stevenson,
Published by TouchWood Editions
153 pages, 2005

Many books can rate highly because they are a good read, but this one rates in a lot of other categories, making it worth the rather steep cover price. Firstly, it's a collection of art. While the majority of the 30 maps gathered in this "atlas" are watercolor, others include a cedar panel for the map of Kuper Island, a recycled paper bas-relief image of "The shorelines of Quadra," a fabric map of Salt Spring Island, a video, photo collage and felted image for Denman Island, and a bead work map of Galiano. Each map tells a different story, from First Nations and European history to endangered flora and fauna, special places, geology and geography, myths, agriculture, beaches and views. Secondly, it's a resource book containing statistics and details about the 17 islands in the Gulf Islands chain, off the coast of western Canada. Thirdly, it documents a process, taking the reader through the steps involved in making a dream became a positive reality. Lastly, it's a good read. Because it's a unique and attractive book with a regional slant but a universal message, it will be a happy surprise under the tree for most book and nature lovers. -- Cherie Thiessen

James Bond: The Man and His World
by Henry Chancellor
Published by John Murray
250 pages, 2005

On February 17th, 1952 Ian Fleming, attempting to take his mind off his upcoming wedding, sat down at his desk in Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica, and wrote " The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." From this first line came the novel Casino Royal and introduced us to one of the most recognised characters in modern literature. To Fleming, Bond was never the wisecracking, suave hero of the films in which he has been portrayed. "...I don't think of him as a character at all," Fleming once told a journalist, "except be a blunt instrument in the hands of the British Government." Cruel, serious, melancholy, tough. The perfect spy would be a man who could blend in, a nobody. But in doing so Fleming had unwittingly created a man whom men wanted to be and women wanted to be with. By creating a man of mystery everyone wanted to know exactly what the mystery was. And we have been fascinated by him for more than 50 years. James Bond: The Man and His World is more than just a 007 companion book, it's a biography of both Bond and his creator. But this is not a book about the film Bond. This is the world of the literary Bond. The Cold War, low tech gadgetry and scrambled eggs -- if you are a true Bondphile you understand. Using sources such as Fleming's own notes and other ephemera from his personal files, as well as the 007 novels, author Henry Chancellor has created the perfect book for the literary or film Bond-lover alike and even for those who never fully understood the world's fascination with 007. -- David Middleton

The Little Book of Garden Heroes
by Allan Shepherd, Distributed by
Published by New Society
119 pages, 2005

You can stuff this baby into a holiday stocking and still have lots of space left for oranges. Any gardener on your list will love this Lilliputian book which just has to be described as "cute." It must be the ladybugs on the cover. Comprised of two parts only, a section on these "heroes" followed by a directory of resources for green gardeners looking for champions, this diminutive book is definitely a keeper. While everyone understands the importance of bees in the garden, the usefulness of ants is often overlooked. While most composters love to see worms writhing in their compost piles, they may still be chasing robins out of the garden beds. In his preface, Shepherd writes: "Man has a history of not appreciating, or even taking the time to find out about, such mutually beneficial relationships. We are nature's blunderers, not understanding our place in the natural order or taking much care of it." So, here's a gift to help those gardeners you love to blunder less and smile more. Chock full of resources, Web sites, advice and tips, this book is far more hefty than it looks. -- Cherie Thiessen

Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Encyclopedia of Invertebrates,Seaweeds and Selected Fishes
by Andy Lamb and Bernard Hanby
photos by Bernard Hanby
Published by Harbour
504 pages, 2005

Who do you love enough to give this book to? It's expensive, but open the page and it will be immediately apparent why this impressive book has such a large price tag. The incredible underwater photography is worth the price alone. Seventeen hundred color photos go a long way to helping readers identify a lot more of the creatures we share our oceans with. Hailed as a milestone in the photographic documentation of West Coast marine life by Murray Newman, director emeritus of the Vancouver Aquarium, this hardcover book has got to be one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs of local marine life ever published. It's an encyclopedia that provides information on every creature's behavior, range, appearance and habitat, including a photograph. In over four thousand scuba dives and almost a lifetime of compilation, this author/photographer team has recorded every type of marine organism they have encountered. That's a lot of marine life: 1,400 species from southern Oregon to southern Alaska, to be exact. Some of the species have never before even been in print. For anyone on your Christmas gift list with an interest in the sea and its creatures, this book will be a winner. -- Cherie Thiessen

Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion
by Laura Jackson
Published by ECW Press
230 pages, 2005

Renewed interest in Neil Diamond was inevitable once it was announced that the original soft rocker would be releasing his first studio album since 2001. The fact that the comeback-producing wunderkind, Rick Rubin, would be producing the album made the announcement all the more exciting. Rubin's touch has been credited with reviving several has-beenish careers, including that of man in black Johnny Cash. With all these facts in hand, it's almost surprising that Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion is as good as book as it is. This mostly due the fact that Diamond has led an intensely interesting life, one that most people don't know a great deal about. Another is that author Laura Jackson knows her rock n' roll. She's written biographies on Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jon Bon Jovi and others. It would be a better book if the prose weren't quite so distant and straight-up journalistic. But the facts all seem to be here and put down for us in a way that almost anyone could follow easily. -- Linda L. Richards

Raincoast Chronicles Fourth Five, Collector's Edition IV
edited by Howard White
published by Harbour Publishing,
413 pages, 2005

Few anthologies have been as successful and long-lived as Harbour Publishing's Raincoast Chronicles. From the first 64-page softcover published in 1972, the series has grown to 20 books. Believe it or not, that was a problem for the publisher because, when the fifth edition hit the stands, all the previous editions were sold out and the then-small publishing house didn't have enough money to reprint them. Their answer: print all five in one volume, thus starting a tradition. That venture, First Five, produced a bestseller which sold 70,000 copies and is in now in its 14th printing. Since then we have had Six/Ten and Eleven Up and now just in time for the holidays, Fourth Five. Each anthology collects five volumes but Fourth Five is the largest of the anthologies, a huge volume complete with many black and white archival photos. The book is certainly a collector's item, but what makes these tales so popular? According to the publisher, these salty stories struck a nerve right from the beginning. They capture the essence of British Columbia's west coast: coastal camps, sawmills, working boats, lighthouses, sockeye runs and even Donkey boiler coffee. Invaluable as an entertaining and readable historical resource, this latest anthology is a perfect gift for anyone who has a taste for British Columbia's rugged west coast lifestyle. -- Cherie Thiessen

Secrets of the Widow's Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to the Da Vinci Code
by David A. Shugarts
Published by Sterling
201 pages, 2005

The world falls into three camps: those that have read The Da Vinci Code and can't get enough of anything to do with it. Those that have read it and can say, "Been there, done that," and those that are so sick of hearing about it, the very title makes them cringe. David A. Shugarts' Secrets of the Widow's So is definitely a book for those who fall in the first camp. Author Shugarts is quick to point out that his book is not intended to be a spoiler to The Solomon Key, Dan Brown's sequel to his almost unthinkably popular book. We would point out that it would not have been possible for Shugarts to include spoilers in any case, since his book was published months before Brown's new one was expected. The Da Vinci Code fans on your list have possibly already instructed you that they need this book. -- Linda L. Richards

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
Published by W.W. Norton & Company
295 pages, 2005

The follow-up to the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (one of January's favorite non-fiction books of 2003), Spook sees the return of science writer Mary Roach's amused interest in all things gross. Where the first book explored the various uses science has found for dead bodies, Spook documents the many (generally goofy) ways science has tried to ascertain whether the human soul really exists. Or, as Roach writes, "What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that -- the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness, persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my laptop?" Like Stiff, Spook pursues its subject through themed chapters: reincarnation, soul-weighing, ectoplasm (yuck!), near-death experiences. In each, Roach gamely jumps in, be it tramping through sweltering villages in India, enrolling in "medium school" in England or opening a box full of purported ectoplasm in a Cambridge University library. She covers the history of modern science's attempts at figuring out this soul thing (dating back to the early days of microscopes) and relates the latest in psychic research (believe it or not, some university labs take this stuff seriously). Throughout, the author maintains a tone of hard-headed skepticism blended with genuine interest. Science and soul may never find common ground, but Spook does a winning job of holding hands with both. As Roach writes at the end, "The debunkers are probably right, but they're no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts." -- Caroline Cummins

Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community
by David A. Neiwert
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
288 pages, 2005

With this past year's 60th anniversary of the atomic-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, it was inevitable that we were barraged (yet again) with hyper-patriotic media reports and books recalling the sacrifices of Americans during World War II. At least Strawberry Days takes an atypical tack, focusing not on G.I. Joe and Rosie the Riveter, but instead on Bellevue, Washington's 300 Japanese residents -- two-thirds of them U.S. citizens -- who, along with nearly 12,000 others living on America's West Coast, were uprooted from their homes and farms in 1942 and incarcerated at inland camps for their own "protection." With its journalistic perspective, Strawberry Days lacks the emotional vigor of, say, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald's internment-camp memoir, Looking Like the Enemy. Yet Neiwert, once a reporter for the Bellevue Journal-American, uses extensive interviews with ex-internees and the printed statements of xenophobes to re-create a wartime climate of distrust, suspicion and fear that pushed the history of Bellevue, a Seattle suburb, to one of its early turning points. Prior to 1942, 95 percent of the vegetables and most of the strawberries grown around Seattle were raised by Japanese farmers, whose families had come to America in the early 1900s and cleared the land around Bellevue for cultivation. Though they claimed to admire Japanese "perseverance and efficiency," white supremacists had long sought to deprive these immigrants of property ownership as well as their historical identity. "I am for a white man's Pacific coast," declared Miller Freeman, a local publisher, Republican activist and, later, shopping center builder, who'd advocated Japanese deportation since 1907. The kamikaze attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, and allegations (dismissed by no less than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) of spying by Japanese Americans, fueled the exclusionists' cause, and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order all people of Japanese ancestry evacuated from Bellevue, Seattle and other coastal communities. Only two years later, and after repeated news reports of bravery demonstrated by Japanese-American soldiers fighting with the U.S. military in Europe, was the exclusionary ban lifted. However, many of the internees returning to Bellevue were met with "No Japs Wanted" signs, and they chose to settle in more open-minded Seattle instead, leaving their former strawberry fields and other farmland to residential and commercial developers such as Freeman. Most of the information in Strawberry Days has been presented elsewhere. But Neiwert's research into Freeman's role in the Japanese expulsion expands our knowledge of this onetime Washington mover, and an epilogue in which the author eviscerates modern revisionists who would defend the wartime internment and dispute racism as one of its causes are, by themselves, worth the price of this book. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911)
by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano
Published by Bulfinch Press
144 pages, 2005

Joseph Pulitzer, namesake of today's Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, arrived in the United States from Austria-Hungary in 1864. He soon set about to make his mark in the American newspaper game, working for a German-language daily in St. Louis, Missouri, before purchasing the St. Louis Post in 1872, and then merging it with the local Dispatch half a dozen years later. Those papers made him money -- a big enough pile of it that in 1883, he set his sights (which is a joke, because Pulitzer's vision went rapidly downhill with age) on buying his way into the New York City market, eventually purchasing what had been an unsuccessful broadsheet called the World. Determined to turn that failing journal around, Pulitzer shifted its focus from straightforward news to scandal, sensationalism and what are still called human-interest stories. Though periodically attacked for his methods (especially by publisher William Randolph Hearst, with whose New York Journal the World maintained a vigorous rivalry for many years), Pulitzer was popular with the New York rabble, who delighted in reports of criminal exploits, embroidered tales of Coney Island salaciousness and "daredevil reporter" Nellie Bly's periodic dispatches -- whether they came from inside a lunatic asylum or somewhere in southern Asia, as she sought, in 1889-90, to best Jules Verne's fictional 80 days around the world (accomplishing the trip in just 72 days!). But he did one better than merely give readers captivating text; he gave them a self-described "greatest newspaper on earth" that, every Sunday, attracted the eye with color illustrations unlike any seen before. As authors Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine, The Fermata) and his wife, Margaret Brentano, write in their graphically stunning book, The World on Sunday, Pulitzer purchased a new high-speed color printing press in 1898, and immediately "ordered his editors to 'impress this novelty on the public mind as the greatest progress in Sunday journalism.' Which they did. 'Like rainbow tints in the spray are the hues that splash and pour from its lightning cylinders,' said one ad announcing the coming of the new press." It's funny to note, as the authors do, that "the more [Pulitzer's] sight dimmed, the more imploringly colorful his paper became." At a time when most newspapers offered dull-looking black-and-white spreads, Pulitzer's World blazed with polychromatic pages devoted to "Easter Fashions Straight from Paris," "The Great Airship Races at the St. Louis World's Fair" of 1904 and four-color comic strips (including, for a time, Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid" strip.) Having rescued what they believe is "one of the very last, perhaps the last, set of original copies of the turn-of-the-century New York World in existence," Baker and Brentano have reproduced many of the most extraordinary and visually arresting pages in The World on Sunday. Not only is this an intriguing, if obviously eccentric, record of historical events, but it's a beautiful sampler of what delighted readers (representations of Robert E. Peary's trip to "the Frozen North") and disturbed them (depictions of what would happen "If a Great Earthquake Shook New York") 100 years and more ago. -- J. Kingston Pierce

 

 

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