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Selections for May 2008

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The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H. W. Brands (2003)

H.W. Brands' The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream is history the way it ought to be written: expansive, thorough, wide-ranging, and filled with interesting people and events (in some cases so interesting that it's hard to believe that the people were real and that the events really did occur; but this isn't a "memoir," it's a history - they were and they did). The California Gold Rush did many things in addition to making a lot of people very rich - it probably also hastened the coming of the Civil War by pushing forward California's dreams of statehood. But perhaps Brands' most interesting contention is that it also changed the way Americans thought, and still think, about success. Before the Gold Rush, our vision of success was that it came after a lifetime of hard work and diligent application - but the Gold Rush rewarded luck, pure and simple. You didn't succeed simply because of your hard work, or because you were a good person or did good works, but because you happened to be in the right place at the right time. (In a sense, it was a real debunking of, or at least rebuttal to, the Protestant ethic of our nation's Founding Fathers.) This is a good choice for any American history buff, especially those most interested in 19th-century Americana.

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Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun (2003)

From the Botticelli-like young woman portrayed on the cover to its intriguing plot line, Dia Calhoun's Aria of the Sea is a winner from first page to last. Teen girls especially will appreciate and empathize with Cerinthe, the main character, who wants desperately to be a dancer (the dream her mother had for her), but whose real talents lie in another direction entirely. Although Aria of the Sea is a fantasy - the story is set in an imaginary world - readers will find Cerinthe's story, from her mother's death and her consequent decision to ignore her talents as a healer and try to follow her mother's dream to be a dancer, entirely realistic. (Her experiences at the school of dance she attends are not unlike those of the young actors and dancers in the movie Fame.) Calhoun's creation of a full and vivid character in Cerinthe - her strengths, how she comes to understand herself and her gifts, how she deals with her closest dance competitor (and all around not-so-nice girl), Eliana - adds depth and resonance to this coming-of-age tale.

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The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (2007)

When Felix (Fix) Castor is hired to exorcise a ghost at the Bonnington Archive, a private library devoted to maritime history, he doesn't realize that he will have to cope with a dazzlingly beautiful succubus who simply exudes sex appeal, werewolves and other shape changers, and plain old vanilla-flavored human evil. Whew! That's quite an array of enemies determined to keep Fix away from the archives and from finding out what's behind the haunting. The Devil You Know, Mike Carey's first novel - he's been a comic book writer up until now - moves along at a good clip and has many nice touches that give it an unexpected (but not unwelcome) depth, including descriptions of Fix's relationship with his brother, a priest who believes that exorcism is best left to the Church, and his relationship with an old friend, whose incarceration in a mental hospital he accidentally caused. From the very first scene at a child's birthday party - Fix has been brought in to entertain the spoiled little brats - you know you're in for a treat. And there's plenty of plot room for sequels galore. (For those who shy away from horror fiction, trust me, this is really a good example of horror-lite, a brand new sub-genre I just invented.

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The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors by Ann Gibbons (2007)

The subject matter of Ann Gibbons' book, The First Human, is revealed by its subtitle: ‘The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors.' What the subtitle doesn't give readers a taste of is just how entertaining and informative a tale the author has to tell, all about the events and individuals (in some cases, "characters" would be a more apt descriptor) involved in the quest to discover the oldest hominids and answer the question of when humans split off from apes. Aimed at the reader who has an interest in, but not necessarily any significant knowledge of, the subject, science writer Gibbons (who began this book as an article for Nature magazine) offers enough of a basic introduction to the fields of paleontology, paleo-anthropology, and even geology, to get us going. And what a story it is: she begins with the early disagreements over whether mankind originated in Asia or Africa (Africa won out); introduces us to some of the early paleontologists, including Louis Leakey and his family; covers the major discoveries, such as Donald Johannson's Lucy (who was featured prominently in popular science magazines as "the mother of mankind"), and Toumai, uncovered in a dig in Chad; explains the many disagreements and controversies that arise in a field when you're talking about events that took place many millions of years ago; explores the personalities of the various major players; and much more. Here's her take on why the field of paleontology is so contentious:

Even experienced researchers often react with more emotion to the discovery of human ancestors than they do to fossils of any other animal, including dinosaurs. New fossils almost always shatter preconceived notions of what our ancestors should look like, revealing our origins as ordinary apes rather than as exalted beings marked from the beginning with a big brain or some other sign of special destiny.

Gibbons' book exemplifies the best in popular science writing - she makes the reader want to delve more deeply into the topics she covers.

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Apples & Oranges: Going Bananas With Pairs by Sara Pinto (2007)

In Apples & Oranges: Going Bananas With Pairs, readers young and old will get a kick out of the loopy and mind-stretching comparisons Sara Pinto makes between objects. How are a bird and a kite alike? The obvious answer is that they both fly in the sky. But Pinto also lets us know, in both words and pictures, that neither one of them uses the telephone. How are trousers and underpants alike? Well yes, they're both articles of clothing, but, as Pinto demonstrates, neither one makes a good hat. The illustrations are brightly colored, eye-catching, and infectiously humorous. I'm looking forward to sharing this book with my five and three-year-old granddaughters, and having us all play a game of making up our own unlikely but perfectly reasonable comparisons. Hmm. How are a computer and a television alike? Neither eats waffles for breakfast"¦.

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Flower Confidential: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart (2007)

After reading Amy Stewart's Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, I will never look at a rose quite the same way. Indeed, despite Gertrude Stein's assertion that "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," according to Stewart it's more the case today that a rose is no longer simply a rose, but rather a business (as are lilies, larkspurs, and almost any other flower you can name), and a highly successful one at that. Despite her love of blossoms (she describes herself as having "a smutty sort of lust for flowers"), Stewart takes a long, illuminating, and highly readable (although frequently disillusioning) look at how flowers are bred, grown, shipped, and marketed to the consumer. We meet some interesting flowerfolk and learn some startling facts and figures along the way, some good for trivia contests and some more substantive. They include: almost a third of Americans tend to purchase a flower or plant for Valentine's Day; Americans buy about 10 million cut flowers a day; Costco plays an important role in the flower industry; the number of carnation growers has shrunk by three-quarters in the last dozen years; many cut flowers (including roses) now lack a fragrance; and Holland no longer has a monopoly on tulip bulbs. Stewart mourns the loss of the many small, independent growers, whose passion translated into gorgeous flower blooms with robust fragrances, but who couldn't compete with the big producers (many of whom are now located in the Andes) and their cheap labor. Think global, smell local, is a motto she might wish the industry would adapt.

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Throw Like a Girl: Stories by Jean Thompson (2007)

In Jean Thompson's Throw Like a Girl: Stories, we meet a collection of women, young and not-so-young, and observe them as they attempt to navigate their way through their respective lives: the men they love (and those they lose, or leave), their shaky family relationships, their difficult choices, and the seemingly innocuous ones - taken ever so lightly - that will have unforeseen repercussions in the future. In the title story, Janey looks back over her relationship with a good friend who's dying of cancer; in "Lost," which begins, "I was twenty years old and about as pretty as I was ever going to be, although I didn't know that yet," the speaker's life was shaped, for better or worse, by a chance meeting with a black-haired motorcyclist; in my favorite story, "The Woman Taken in Adultery," an unnamed narrator tells of her affair with a man she simply calls The Paramour. That story's first line is "I had two daughters and a husband who didn't notice anything." Thompson's writing - as I suspect you can tell even from these few examples - is smart, wry, often self-mocking, and impossible to resist.

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Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (2005)

Jess Walter's Citizen Vince, set in the final days leading up to the presidential election of 1980 (Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan), is the story of Vince Camden, currently hiding from his past in Spokane, Washington, and working as a doughnut maker - courtesy of the federal government's witness protection program. His past, or at least that part of it relevant to Walter's story, consisted mainly of low-grade criminal activity - Vince is the kind of guy our mothers warned us against. The novel takes off when that past catches up with him, in the form of a hitman sent by none other than the youngish (but already extremely powerful) mob boss John Gotti, who didn't take kindly to his cooperation with the Feds. Trying his best to evade death sends Vince back to New Jersey, involves him in a heart-pounding poker game, and forces him to put his relationship with his girlfriend Beth (a prostitute with a heart of gold) on hold. But this is also the story of a man's one last try for redemption (even if it does involve merely doughnuts - "Fry, frost and fill," Vince muses at one point. "No reason such a sequence should be any less satisfying than some other sequence - say, scalpel, suction and suture,") framed against a presidential election that turned on the hostage crisis in Iran and Ronald Reagan's inspired question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Part crime novel, part character study, it all adds up to a terrifically entertaining book - and one that's particularly appropriate for this run-up to the national election this coming November.

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Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton by Sara Wheeler (2007)

Remember Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa? Meryl Streep did her usual superb job of inhabiting the character of Isak Dinesen, but when I finished Sara Wheeler's engrossing and fluent Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, I realized what a terrific choice the casting director made when Robert Redford was cast as the great love of Dinesen's life (although, as we read here, his great love was East Africa, particularly Kenya). Wheeler moves Finch Hatton (1881-1937) into the spotlight, illuminating this complex (not to mention handsome, non-conforming, dashing, charismatic, and daring) man, from his childhood in a once-wealthy family, his happiness at Eton, and his fascination with the wide open spaces of East Africa, where he spent both his happiest and most bitter days. For World War I history buffs, there's a lot of very interesting material here on warfare in East Africa, in which Finch Hatton was a combatant. Wheeler writes: "It wasn't the troglodyte world of the trenches, but it was another kind of hell. The war in East Africa - virtually unknown to the outside world - was, in its safari through purgatory, a negative metaphor for the Kenyan paradise of the epoch handed down in literature and myth. And the campaign remains buried under the weight of history, whereas Karen Blixen's luminously famous first line - ‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills' - has irreversibly enshrined the lyrical romance of the same landscape." Although Finch Hatton left no diaries, indeed, little sign of an inner, contemplative life at all, Wheeler does an admirable job of giving us a strong sense of a man of whom it can seemingly be said that to meet him was to love him. If you have any doubts, just read Out of Africa and Beryl Markham's West With the Night and you'll see. Book clubs looking for a "mini-series" of books might consider reading Wheeler, Markham, and Dinesen over a three-month period.

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Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White (2007)

Long May She Reign is the fourth novel in Ellen Emerson White's series about Meg Powers, daughter of the first female President of the United States, and it's a definite page-turner. You don't need to have read any of the three earlier books to thoroughly enjoy this one (although now that the publisher, Feiwel and Friends, is reissuing The President's Daughter, White House Autumn, and Long Live the Queen, anyone who missed out on reading them will have a chance to catch up). Following her kidnapping and torture (events chillingly described in the third book), Meg Powers realizes that her life will never be the same. Not only is she forced to delay going off for her freshman year of college as she tries to recover, both mentally and physically, from her ordeal - and it's more than just the frequent nightmares and the painful physical therapy that she has to endure - she must come to terms with the knowledge that her mother announced publicly, again and again, that despite her daughter's life being in danger, she "can not, have not, and will not negotiate with terrorists." (And indeed, the President didn't do those things. If Meg had not smashed the bones in her own hand in a successful escape attempt, she probably would have been killed.) Meg is a completely believable teenager: she's prickly, courageous, loving, difficult, and often funny. Although the larger plot - the kidnapping, Meg's special situation as the President's daughter, the post-traumatic stress she's enduring in this book - are vastly different from the experiences of most teens, the smaller, but no less important, issues - dealing with college roommates, family relationships, and decisions about sex and boyfriends - will ring true to readers of all ages.

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In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross (2001)

English professor Kate Fansler solves her first case (and it's a doozy!) in Amanda Cross's In the Last Analysis. When one of her students, Janet Harrison, asks Kate to suggest a psychiatrist, Kate highly recommends her old friend, analyst Emanuel Bauer. Then Janet turns up dead in Emanuel's office, and he becomes the main suspect in her murder. Totally believing in her old friend's innocence, and feeling that in some way she was responsible for Janet's death, Kate decides to solve the crime on her own, making good use of unofficial assistance from a good-looking assistant district attorney as well as from her niece's fiancé, whom she hires to do some sleuthing. Although Kate went on to solve many more crimes in many more books, this highly satisfying puzzler remains, in my view at least, the best. (Amanda Cross was the pseudonym that the late writer - and English professor - Carolyn Heilbrun used for this series of witty and literate whodunits.)

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Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow (2007)

There are some books that make you realize just how lovely the book as an object can be. Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, by Jenny Uglow, is one of them. Printed on heavy, creamy paper adorned with small, intricate woodcuts, this is clearly a book to treasure; the care taken in its production is apparent. How fortunate, then, that the excellence of the contents matches the quality of its packaging. Although I very much enjoy biographies, I had never even heard of Uglow's subject, Thomas Bewick, and would probably never have even picked up her book, save that I was one of the judges for a national contest in which it was a finalist. (I'm thrilled to say that it won.) Uglow writes elegantly, in simple and unadorned prose that perfectly illuminates a time, a place, and her subject. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) grew up and lived all his life in Northumberland, England. As was then the fashion, as a young teenager he was apprenticed, in his case to an engraver, and began a long and successful career of depicting scenes of nature in the medium of wood engravings. (The book includes many, many beautifully reproduced examples of Bewick's meticulous work, each one worthy of looking at long and carefully - one could weave whole tales around each engraving. This slows down the reading of the book significantly!) Woven in with Bewick's biography is the larger story of what was happening in England during his lifetime, most notably the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (which would reach its zenith after Bewick's death, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and the competing energies of the Romantic movement, which was characterized by intellectual and artistic hostility toward that revolution. (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a prominent example of Romanticism's take on the dangers of the new industrialization.)