Non-Fiction

Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor (Hyperion) by Rick Marin

Rick Marin's first book, a sort of sexual memoir, makes Sex in the City seem almost saccharinely sincere. In Cad Marin, a former New York Times reporter and Newsweek senior writer, talks about his exploits -- and sometimes exploitations -- with the gentler sex over the course of years, following the breakup of his brief "starter" marriage at the beginning of the 1990s. Does Marin sometimes come off as shallow, opportunistic and arrogant? Well, yeah, but that's sorta the point. A personal tragedy late in this book's second half brings the writer some perspective on his life and allows for an optimistic conclusion. But the conclusion here is less important than the journey. Marin is a stylish writer able to give us humor that both cuts and bites.

The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Sidney Blumenthal

Journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who covered politics for The Washington Post and The New Yorker before signing on as a senior advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997, is that rare and refreshing sort of liberal: unapologetic in his viewpoints and unintimidated by blustering right-wingers, who launch into frothing diatribes about vague lefty bias in the media, while simultaneously ignoring the overt conservative predilections of The Washington Times, the Fox News Channel and other Republican partisans. He makes no excuses, either, for venerating Clinton, a charismatic and extraordinarily well-prepared politician whose eight years in the White House brought record national prosperity, crucial environmental protections, and a dramatic expansion of health and education programs for the middle class and working poor, but also unleashed a flood of factional vitriol. Readers of The Hunting of the President, by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, will find the first quarter of Blumenthal's 822-page work more of a recap than a revelation. Beyond that, however, The Clinton Wars becomes equal parts memoir and political analysis, with Blumenthal offering his insider's perspective on one of the most influential American administrations of our time.

Crete on the Half Shell (HarperFlamingo Canada) by Byron Ayanoglu

At the age of 55, Ayanoglu -- celebrity chef (he's cooked for Jagger, among others), food writer (four cookbooks and several food-related columns), novelist (2001's Love in the Age of Confusion) and playwright (more than 14 of his plays have been produced) -- decided to leave Canada, the country that had been his home since age 12, and look for his roots in Greece. As he writes in his food memoir, Crete on the Half Shell, Ayanoglu was on a mission to restore "a Hellenic destiny interrupted by four decades in the Diaspora." In short, he thought he was heading to Crete, "the birthplace of all that is Greek," to retire. An airport encounter with an old acquaintance -- "the legendary Theo, eccentric chef and restaurant genius of several continents" -- results in Ayanoglu postponing his retirement. "I'm older than you," Theo says when he hears Ayanoglu's plans. "If you're ready to retire, what am I supposed to do? Die? Well, I'm not ready to die, and you're not retiring. That's all there is to that!" Instead the two open a restaurant in Crete, making for a much more interesting book than a retirement would have offered. Ayanoglu gives us an intimate portrait of Crete, "the epicentre of the earth," spiced liberally with his stories about the people he meets and the food he prepares and consumes. Like Frances Mayes' loving postcards from Tuscany, Crete on the Half Shell is the next best thing to a vacation.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown Books) by Erik Larson

With its neoclassical architecture, extravagant lighting displays, whole villages imported from Africa and original Ferris wheel, Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 operated for only six months -- in the midst of the worst U.S. economic depression up to that time. Yet it drew a whopping 27.5 million visitors, including two who share the limelight in this latest popular-history work from Erik Larson (Isaac's Storm): Daniel H. Burnham, the blunt but cordial Chicago designer who recruited America's foremost architects to develop this fair's Brobdingnagian structures; and H.H. Holmes, who moved to the Windy City in 1886 and soon found his fortune as a psychopathic Bluebeard, marrying and murdering inexperienced young women, and simply killing others for pleasure, then reducing their corpses to skeletons in the basement of his quirky World's Fair Hotel. Amazingly, it wasn't until two years after Burnham's fair closed that Holmes was run to ground through ardent detective work. Larson tells the parallel stories of these moral opposites with a genuine curiosity and an eye for the quirky details of their age. An absolutely engrossing read.

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Times Books) by John McKibben

If you want part of your beach reading experience to include looking around in dismay and muttering forlornly, "What have we done?" Enough is just the book for you. Fifteen years ago, author McKibben wrote The End of Nature, a book warning that humans had begun to manifest perhaps irrevocable change on the world around them. It was, if anything, a warning cry. Hardly anybody, it seems, was paying attention. Enough is altogether more strident, and for good reason. McKibben warns about global warming, the damage to Earth's ozone layer and germline genetic programming, describing a world where the horrors that science fiction writers render -- a scientific world run amok -- only begin to scratch the surface. "Even as the genetic engineers work busily to upgrade us," McKibben writes, "adding IQ and memory, the robotics engineers are hard at work making sure we'll be surpassed, and the nanotechnologists to make sure all our wants will be satisfied by pushing buttons. What, in other words, are we being enhanced for?" What, indeed?

Helen Keller: Rebel Lives (Ocean Press) edited by John Davis

We've been given a vanilla view of Helen Keller through books and film. In the sanitized version, Keller was best known for being blind, her major accomplishment mastering communication in order to survive the silent, dark room that fate had handed her. Helen Keller, part of the Rebel Lives series from Ocean Press, dishes up an entirely different glimpse of this remarkable woman. Beyond an introduction that synopsizes Keller's life and views and provides a chronology of her life, Helen Keller anthologizes many of Keller's opinion pieces, which previously appeared in journals as varied as the U.S. Socialist Party Daily, Ziegler Magazine for the Blind and Ladies' Home Journal. Keller emerges as an intellectual and militant socialist. Ocean Press' Rebel Lives series comprises "selections of writings by and about remarkable women and men whose radicalism has been concealed or forgotten." Another similar book on Albert Einstein is also available.

Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (Simon & Schuster) by Hunter S. Thompson

Just when we'd given him up for lost, Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in America, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary) springs a memoir on us. Of course, calling Kingdom of Fear a memoir seems odd for this writer because, as Timothy Ferris points out in his foreword, Thompson has been "the onstage protagonist of most of his works, [so] the question arises as to who is primarily responsible for all this inspiration and intrigue: Hunter the writer, or Hunter the written-about?" Whichever the case, Kingdom of Fear is a can't-miss for readers who enjoy Thompson's peculiar brand of profundity hidden in profanity.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (HarperCollins) by Simon Winchester

Over the course of 21 hours, in the summer of 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa self-destructed with a violence that hurled most of its 15 square miles of rock, including its 2,600-foot main peak, into the skies over Indonesia. More than 36,000 people were killed, primarily by the tsunamis that followed this blast. The roar of Krakatoa's death throes could be heard almost 3,000 miles away, and the resultant ash cloud lowered temperatures around the world. It was, writes Simon Winchester, "the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history." Although Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) devotes much of his latest book to the pyrotechnics that reduced Krakatoa to a 1,000-foot hole in the ocean floor, he first addresses Indonesian history, the science of plate tectonics and the development of news services that could quickly spread word of the catastrophe. Interestingly, he concludes that Krakatoa's history isn't over: Another volcanic island is now growing in exactly the same spot, at 20 feet a year. The explosion that occurred in 1883 will, Winchester warns, "one day repeat itself, and in precisely the same way."

The Miss Stone Affair: America's First Modern Hostage Crisis (Simon & Schuster) by Teresa Carpenter

It used to be that history books were written about Big Events -- wars, political movements, the construction or destruction of cities. More and more, though, they're written about bizarre stories that might previously have been considered footnotes. Such a topic is the 1901 kidnapping in Macedonia of Ellen Maria Stone, a daring religious missionary and teacher, and "the first American captured for ransom on foreign soil." In The Miss Stone Affair, Pulitzer Prize winner Teresa Carpenter dramatically recounts the abduction of both Stone and a young Bulgarian nurse, Katerina Tsilka, by Islamic revolutionaries. She digs into the ethnic and religious roots of their snatching, examines the implications for American foreign policy that were presented by ransom demands for Stone's safety (Could President Theodore Roosevelt negotiate with the kidnappers at the risk of his nation's honor?), and follows the controversy that resulted from their safe return and subsequent lecture touring. Given America's increasingly troubled involvement right now in the Middle East, The Miss Stone Affair offers a timely resonance. But it bears intrigue far beyond whatever lessons it may hold for latter-day terrorism negotiators. This is forgotten history worth discovering.

My Invented Country (HarperCollins) by Isabel Allende

"I was born in the years of the smoke and carnage of the Second World War, and the greatest part of my youth was spent waiting for the planet to blow apart when someone distractedly pushed a button deploying atomic bombs." So begins the introduction to Isabel Allende's slender yet intimate memoir, a perfect reflection of the writer so many of us have come to love. Allende's life in exile from her native Chile has forced her to rely on memory. "But be careful!" she writes. "Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory." Unsurprisingly, the writer who gave us Aphrodite: A Memory of the Senses and Daughter of Fortune gifts us here with an astonishingly moving view of her life: at times beautiful, at times painful, but never, ever dull.

Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost, Hero of a Golden Age (Warner Books) by John Eisenberg

While it's unlikely there will be another equine biography with the reach and impact of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), you can't blame a sportswriter for trying. John Eisenberg of The Baltimore Sun weaves his own kind of magic with Native Dancer, doing a credible job of bring us not only the life of what was -- arguably -- one of the most dynamic stars of the horseracing world, but re-creating the innocent and optimistic mood of the early 1950s during which this great horse raced. If Native Dancer lacks some of the appeal of Seabiscuit it isn't Eisenberg's fault: Unlike Hillenbrand's subject, a horse with everything stacked against him, Native Dancer did what he was born to do. Ralph Kerchval, manager of Sagamore Farms where this racehorse was bred, is quoted in the book saying that, with Native Dancer, "there was never any doubt about his athletic qualities, and he was handsome from the word go."

On Blondes (Bloomsbury) by Joanna Pitman

As a very small part of her research for On Blondes, author Joanna Pitman "spent an entire afternoon having my hair bleached at colossal expense." On emerging from the salon, Pitman writes that she felt as though her head "was radiating some kind of spectral glow." She felt sunnier, more youthful and optimistic. Male library attendants vaulted to do her bidding and she was given preferential treatment at the market. Strangers smiled, she reports, unbidden. "Soon I began to smile back. After a while I wondered whether I could afford not to be blonde." None of this is really what Pitman's well-researched and -executed book is about. At the same time, how could it be about anything else? On Blondes examines the blonde's place in history; the lengths women have gone through to be blonde (from using pigeon dung as a bleaching agent in ancient Rome to today's "because you're worth it") and, most especially, the power of "blondisima" through the ages.

The Pawprints of History (Free Press) by Stanley Coren

No one ever argues that dog is man's best friend. So it follows that our best friend has had a hand -- or, in this case, a paw -- in shaping the human past. In The Pawprints of History, professor of psychology and noted canine behavioral expert Stanley Coren looks engagingly at some notable, though mostly little-known, historical canine companions. From dogs in the Oval Office (Coren says that more dogs have lived in the White House than presidents, president's wives and presidential children combined) and Napoleon Bonaparte's dogs, to the 15th-century Japanese shogun's reign that went -- quite literally -- to the dogs, Alexander Graham Bell's "talking" dog and a great deal more.

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580 (Douglas & McIntyre Canada) by Samuel Bawlf

In a world gone crazy for historic biographies, Samuel Bawlf has written one that will hold up against the best of them. Not only does The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake include many little-known facts about the great explorer, it also brings forward information that may send historians scurrying. Bawlf, a geographer, former official in the British Columbian government and a die-hard sailor, contends that Drake's mission to the new world was shrouded in secrecy by order of Queen Elizabeth I, and that Drake sailed much farther north than anyone has previously speculated. The research that must have been involved in producing this book boggles the mind and, occasionally, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake boggles under the weight of it all. For the most part, however, this history sings and Drake emerges more human than we've ever seen him.

The South Beach Diet (Rodale) by Arthur Agatston

Diet books aren't in short supply at any time of the year, but that's even more true when bikini season looms. What sets Agatston's diet book apart, however, is the accidental nature of his success and the grand swell that led to the book's bestseller status even before it got anywhere near bookstores. Agatston's main professional focus is on the heart. His career has been "largely devoted to the science of noninvasive cardiac imaging." As a practicing cardiologist, he became disillusioned with the low-fat, high-carb diets available to his patients and was determined to design his own -- better -- diet. He was, he says in The South Beach Diet, not concerned with his patient's appearance, but rather with the affect of diet on the heart. The fact this diet helps followers "Loose Belly Fat First!" (or so the cover promises) isn't doing anything to dampen the huge interest that The South Beach Diet has generated.

Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling (Thunder Mouth Press) by Herbert Asbury

Thanks to the recent film The Gangs of New York, which drew its inspiration from Herbert Asbury's 1928 non-fiction book of the same name, there's been a revival of interest in this early 20th-century journalist and social critic. The Missouri-born Asbury got his big career start at William Randolph Hearst's old Atlanta Georgian, but eventually moved on to the New York Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, for which he penned a regular column about New York underworld lore. Beginning with Gangs, he set about to create what one critic has called "a bottoms-up history" of America, focusing on the low life, whether on the East Coast, Chicago or San Francisco. (His 1933 book The Barbary Coast is, without question, the most colorful treatment of San Francisco's heritage available.) Sucker's Progress, originally published in 1938, recounts the background of gambling and swindling in the States through the stories of those men and women who excelled at separating "suckers" from their hard-earned lucre. Riverboat "sharpers," notorious gambling "hells" and infamous grifters and con men all come to life through Asbury's acerbic recollections and his landslide of historical arcana. For popular-history buffs in need of beach entertainment, this is a sure bet.

 

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