Gift Guide 2003


















The Backyard Astronomer's Guide
by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
Published by Firefly Books
336 pages, 2002

Want to learn about astronomy but haven't a clue what kind of equipment you should have or don't even know where to start looking for the big dipper? The Backyard Astronomer's Guide should answer just about any question you can think of and maybe even a few you can't. Where to look, what to look at and how to look at it -- plus a good helping of the history of astronomy -- are covered so thoroughly it's difficult to even begin to get into the encyclopedic nature of this large, fascinating and complete book. Interesting writing, great lay-out and clear, concise illustrations -- along with Dickinson and Dyer's expertise on all things astronomical -- make this a must have for both the neophyte and the knowledgeable stargazer.

Bill Clinton and Black America
by DeWayne Wickham
Published by Ballantine Books/One World
310 pages, 2002

"More than any other person who has occupied the Oval Office, Bill Clinton has a special bond with blacks, a relationship that fueled his decision to move his postpresidential office to Harlem," writes Wickham, a USA Today columnist. Part of former President Clinton's enthusiastic backing by African Americans -- even now, almost two years since he left the White House -- has to do with the fact that, though he was reared in modest circumstances in America's still-often-racist South, some of his most prominent friends are black. He also benefited by filling the senior ranks of his administration with black officials, by standing up in favor of affirmative-action programs (when rival Republicans sought to trash them), by discussing racial issues repeatedly and publicly, and, interestingly, by demonstrating his prodigious intellect. As Tennessee author Alice Randall, one of many African-American notables interviewed in Wickham's book, says, "Black people can identify with the very hardworking, very bright person, who makes something of himself from nothing. And that's Bill Clinton." But what really cemented the close relationship between the 42nd president and black America may have been the Republicans' 1998 plot to oust Clinton from the presidency. African Americans could relate to his battle against the same white conservative politicians with whom they'd wrestled repeatedly in the past. And, Wickham opines, they believed they could trust Bill Clinton as they never trusted Ronald Reagan, whose campaigns had reached out to opponents of civil rights, or George Bush the elder, who'd nominated Clarence Thomas, an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, to the U.S. Supreme Court. (The fact that Bush's son, George W., also admires Thomas and has paid mostly lip service to improving U.S. economic and employment conditions does nothing to raise his standing among African Americans, either.) Wickham presents three interviews with the ex-president and several of his race-related speeches in the back half of this volume. But it's the first-person impressions of black leaders -- filled with scattershot and emotional memories of Clinton -- that give this work its heart and, not insignificantly, emphasize the continuing deep divisions between black and white America. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Bobbi Brown Beauty Evolution: A Guide to a Lifetime of Beauty
by Bobbi Brown with Sally Wadyka
Published by HarperCollins
211 pages, 2002

Though it's certainly a book about beauty, Bobbi Brown Beauty Evolution is as much about taking care of your insides -- physical and emotional -- as it is about creating illusion on your outsides. "I want every woman who reads this book to put it down feeling better about herself," writes Brown in her introduction. And she does mean every woman: there are chapters aimed at women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and "Your Seventies... and beyond." What's refreshing about this is that beauty, as an industry, often seems like such a closed club. Here's what you do if you're 20 and flawless, but in your 60s? Forget it: that ship has sailed. "I hate to think of women in their seventies and eighties going for plastic surgery," writes Brown. "You've spent decades earning the face you have. Why try to change it now?" The makeover pages are classic Brown: no startling transformations, just each woman's natural beauty -- some models, but mostly real women of all ages -- enhanced by subtle, easy-to-do things. There are chapters on beauty challenges for all skin types, colorations and ethnicities, beauty concerns for pregnant women and those dealing with cancer. Easy things to do for a quick fix on a bad hair day or when your look just isn't coming together. Bobbi Brown Beauty Evolution really seems to have covered all situations for women who don't make their living with their looks, but who want to feel better about themselves every day.

Diana Vreeland
by Eleanor Dwight
Published by HarperCollins
308 pages, 2002

It seems only appropriate that the biography of a woman whose entire life was about style and whose work had such an impact on the modern fashion industry should be so ... stylish. Eleanor Dwight's elegant and authoritative book is a work that "D.V" herself would have been proud of. Almost coffeetable-bookish in proportions, the red-on-red cover -- in honor of Vreeland's penchant for the color -- hinges over a lavishly illustrated and highly informative view of the woman who was -- arguably -- the most dominant voice in fashion during her era. Dwight is best known for her highly praised biography of Edith Wharton.

Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel
by Scott Adams
Published by HarperBusiness
352 pages, 2002

Even when Scott Adams was "only a cartoonist," there were those who accused him of being a philosopher. Breaking out of the funnies in 1996 with the New York Times bestseller The Dilbert Principle only added fuel to the fire. Adams now releases his fifth quasi-business book: Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, in which the author helps all of us get in touch with our inner fur-bearing rodent. Now, understand this: a corporate world where Adams' business books are taken seriously would be a scary place indeed. (A few chapter headings from the latest book articulate this quite nicely: "Avoiding Work the Weasel Way," "Entertaining Yourself at Work," "Getting Your Way at Work," and so on.) But a world without Scott Adams -- and Dilbert, the head weasel -- would be much less entertaining.

Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers
by Robert M. Utley
Published by Oxford University Press
416 pages, 2002

Can it really be coincidental that this book's cover resembles the jacket of Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel, Lonesome Dove (one of January's best books of the 20th century)? Most Americans, after all, probably know little about the rough-riding, law-enforcing Texas Rangers beyond what they've picked up from McMurtry's fiction. Yet there's a much bigger and more compelling story to learn, and historian Utley presents it well. As Lone Star Justice explains, the Rangers trace their history back to 1823 and the banding together of "citizen soldiers periodically mobilized to fight Indians and Mexicans." A decade later, they gained organization under Captain John Coffee Hays, a Kentucky-born surveyor who assembled one of the first Ranger contingents in San Antonio, and Ben McCullouch, who'd learned his outdoors skills from none other than Indian fighter (and future U.S. congressman) Davy Crockett. Armed with Samuel Colt's new revolving pistols, the Rangers went on to renown as one of the toughest, most daring groups of government lawmen the American West had ever seen, more than ready to take on renegade Comanches (as they did in the 1840 Battle of Plum Creek) or help General Zachary Taylor seize the Mexican city of Monterey in 1846, during the Mexican-American War. By focusing on the Rangers' initial 100 years (before they were merged with the State Highway Patrol of Texas), Utley draws on a wealth of dramatic experiences, from the force's confrontations with train robbers and cattle thieves, to its hunt for outlaws such as John Wesley Hardin. While the Rangers have been cast by other histories as either flawless heroes or brutal killers, Utley offers a more balanced portrayal, pointing out the force's strengths and weaknesses. The author is said to be at work on a second volume of Rangers history, but it's hard to imagine that it could be halfway as stirring as this one. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Museum of Hoaxes
by Alex Boese
Published by E.P. Dutton
304 pages, 2002

Just the thing for those lovers of historical esoterica on your gift list: a clever compendium of deceptions perpetrated since the Middle Ages. An outgrowth of Boese's entertaining Web site,, The Museum of Hoaxes begins with a "gullibility test" that shows just how difficult it can be to spot outright flim-flammery. (True or false: Mud throwing was an official event at the 1904 Olympics. That's true!) From there, this volume produces one outrageous humbug after the next, from 14th-century explorer Sir John Mandeville's race of dog-headed humans and the 18th-century story about a woman who gave birth to rabbits, to Switzerland's "bumper spaghetti harvest," the chess-playing "Turk" automaton (which inspired Tom Standage's recent book, The Turk), the discovery of "man-bats" on Earth's moon, and Richard Nixon's 1992 comeback bid for the U.S. presidency. While most of these ruses (P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid," the "Sydney Iceberg," etc.) are fairly innocent in nature, exploiting the public's apparently bottomless naïveté, Boese also includes some more nefarious hoaxes (such as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which supposedly laid out a Jewish plan to take control of international finances). And this book includes a number of alleged hoodwinkings -- like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot -- that continue to draw their defenders. What's that old adage about a sucker being born every minute? -- J. Kingston Pierce

Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock
by Thomas Farel Heffernan
Published by W.W. Norton & Company
280 pages, 2002

"I am the bloody man; I have the bloody hand, and I will be revenged." That line is theatrical but also hysterical enough to chill you right down to your bones, especially as it's delivered in the middle of a frantic, murderous mutiny on board the Globe, a whaleship that had departed from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, in December 1822. The man with the blood-soaked digits -- and a blubber-cutting knife clutched in them -- was Samuel Comstock, later to be known (by his own brother's account) as "the terrible whaleman." Although born into a family of God-fearing Quakers, he grew up playing war games ... and, fatefully, never quite grew out of them. "At the age of twelve," notes historian Heffernan, "he carried pistols and daggers and kept them under his pillow at night -- very un-Quakerish sport." Like many a male reared (at least for a time) on the island of Nantucket at the height of its whaling period, Comstock went away to sea as a teenager. He learned to make trouble and make love, but he also discovered a hatred for whaleships and their officers. Instead, explains Heffernan, he longed to become monarch of his own desert island. "He would sail for the Pacific, kill the captain and officers of his ship, take it over, land at an island inhabited by savages, murder the rest of the crew, become the king of the natives, and turn them into his army." This sounded like nothing more than fantasy, until the 21-year-old Comstock reached the South Pacific aboard the Globe. Leading a party of mutineers, he set about massacring the ship's officers, then hoisted canvas for the primitive Marshall Islands, hungry to found his piratical empire. But within only days of reaching his destination, Comstock was shot by his fellow conspirators. Wow! And that's on page 99 of Mutiny on the Globe. What's left? An escape from the islands by half a dozen seamen not involved in Comstock's perfidy, the killing of other sailors by Marshallese natives, and the 22-month imprisonment/adoption of two survivors on the atoll over which "the terrible whaleman" had hoped to reign supreme. That Heffernan maintains his readers' interest for more than 100 pages after the tale's bloody climax is a tribute both to his appreciation for the suffering of those two trapped survivors and his blessedly non-academic storytelling style. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery
by Simon Worrall
Published by E.P. Dutton
320 pages, 2002

Journalist Worrall looks back at the life and crimes of Mark Hofmann, who began his career in forgery at the tender age of 14, when by jiggering the mint mark on a coin, he produced a numismatic rarity worth thousands of dollars. Hofmann is better known, though, for his literary fabrications. Over the years, he forged documents from such luminaries as Daniel Boone, Jack London and Emily Dickinson, in the last case producing a 15-line poem -- supposedly a missing work from the elusive "belle of Amherst" -- that was auctioned off by Sotheby's for $21,000. (Only later, after several forgery authorities had ruled the poem authentic, was it proved to be a fake.) It's Hofmann's audacity and obsessive commitment to accuracy, as well as the complexity of his subterfuges, that make The Poet and the Murderer a consuming read. Most intriguing may be this master con man's determination to expose the hypocrisy of the Mormon Church, into which Hofmann had been born, by faking religious documents that would cast the church in a negative light. That Hofmann perpetrated his frauds for so long, and that the fear of his being exposed increased the severity of his crimes -- he resorted to murder -- gives Worrall's work the feel of a well-plotted thriller. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!
by Michael Moore
Published by ReganBooks
304 pages, 2002

Yeah, yeah, OK, so Moore made a few sloppy errors (spelled out concisely by Salon) in his book-length harangue against U.S. "Thief-in-Chief" George W. Bush and the other crony capitalists and right-wing ideologues who make up W.'s White House kakistocracy. But he's not an investigative reporter, after all; he's a documentary filmmaker and satirical provocateur. And who better than someone with such an irreverent eye to interpret the mess in which the United States now finds itself? This is the nation that only two years ago boasted of historic national budget surpluses, yet now faces massive deficits for as far as economists can see. The same country that eschews calls from other nations for global cooperation (on environmental matters, for instance), yet insists that foreign leaders leap to its aid in waging pre-emptive war against Iraq -- a mission that, as salutary as its goal of "regime change" may be, pales when compared with the need to address potential conflicts elsewhere. And, of course, this is the same sovereign republic whose president vowed to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," then when he thought no one was looking, distanced himself from that pledge as shrewdly as he had from most of his campaign promises. Incensed by Bush Junior's assumption of power through a U.S. Supreme Court-aided "coup" in 2000, Moore lashes out at him with a fervency that may not have been heard since critics dubbed Rutherford B. Hayes (another Republican who lost the popular vote but made it to the White House anyway) "His Fraudulency." The author's shotgun criticism spares almost nobody -- not Vice President Dick Cheney (who Republicans hope "can survive half a dozen heart attacks and last long enough to oversee the raping and pillaging of everything west of Wichita"); not the U.S. education system ("Our problem isn't just that our kids don't know nothin' but that the adults who pay their tuition are no better"); not "spineless" Democrats ("There is no one on their side of the aisle willing to go to battle for us the way a Tom DeLay or Trent Lott will for [Bush's] side"); and not even air-conditioning (which Moore contends helped the South to finally win the Civil War and reign supreme -- "and if you don't believe it, just look at our last four presidential elections"). But beyond all of its barbs and sometimes fatuous recommendations (Moore suggests, for instance, that black drivers avoid racial profiling by placing inflatable white dolls in their passenger seats -- "The cops will probably think you're a chauffeur and leave you alone"), this best-selling book delivers a broader, more important message: If Americans want their government to more fully represent them, they must take part -- if not by running for office themselves, then at least by voting and demanding that politicians act in the interests of all Americans, not just the wealthy and powerful few. We get the government we deserve. -- J. Kingston Pierce

This Here's a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robbery
by Duane Swierczynski
Published by Alpha Books
312 pages, 2002

Swierczynski, a senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine, has compiled more than 200 years worth of crafty, quirky and bungling efforts to make surprise withdrawals from U.S. financial institutions. He identifies the nation's first bank robber as Isaac Davis, who in 1798 filched $162,821 from the Bank of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, with some help from the repository's porter. Then he goes on, in spirited anecdotal fashion, to remark on many of the usual suspects -- Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, John Dillinger and Patty Hearst are all represented in these pages -- as well as myriad forgotten felons, such as Paddy Mitchell, whose "Stopwatch Gang" became known between 1974 and 1994 for quick heists, never firing a shot in the execution of their business and wearing masks of ex-presidents to conceal their identities. In addition to the plunderer profiles, This Here's a Stick-Up looks at theft techniques (lone-wolf-style robberies versus takeover-style invasions), the success of the Pinkerton Agency and later the FBI in apprehending these perpetrators, and the cities most susceptible to bank jobs ("L.A. is the bank robbery capital of the world, and has been since 1978"). A chapter titled "Reservoir Dorks" will have you howling over foul-ups by looters who just couldn't catch a break. (Don't miss the account of a Brooklyn robber who, during his escape from a hold-up, was mugged and lost his whole paper sack full of cash.) Swierczynski even includes a clever "stick-tionary" at the end, where you can pick up a mouthful of crook-speak. This here's a book for folks who prefer to take their history with a grain of assault. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Weird Nature
by John Downer
Published by Firefly Books
156 pages, 2002

The companion book to the Discovery Channel series by the same name, Weird Nature the book stands very well on its own. Intended for readers of all ages, the wonderful photographs of "stupid nature tricks" combined with really informative and well-written text would make this book a great jumping off point for family discussions on any number of topics. Weird Nature's chapter headings describe this book as well as anything could: "Marvelous Motion," "Bizarre Breeding," "Fantastic Feeding," "Devious Defenses," "Puzzling Partners" and "Peculiar Potions." The grotesque, the beautiful, the gory and the sublime: you couldn't make this stuff up. And the pictures are here to prove it.