Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Poisoned Pen Press: That Night in the Library by Eva Jurczyk

From My Shelf

For Dad

So many great book ideas for fathers (and not-fathers); check out these, and find more in the reviews below.

Loopers: A Caddie's Twenty-Year Golf Odyssey by John Dunn. An entertaining insider's account about the vocation of caddying and the beautiful grounds where caddies ply their trade.

It's Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter Gatherer by Bill Heavey (Atlantic Monthly Press). Heavey lives inside the D.C. Beltway, not a prime spot for foraging, but he's game, and very funny.

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann (Pantheon). Part memoir, part small-town history, this is an evocative, funny, poignant chronicle of a season of minor-league ball.

Never. Say. Die. (Cameron + Company). Even if dad's not a San Francisco Giants fan, this book about their 2012 World Series championship is a delight, starting with the cover photo of Sergio Romo icing a win. Fabulous photography by Brad Mangin, text by Brian Murphy--a celebration of a gritty, determined team.

E.B. White on Dogs, edited by Martha White (Tilbury House). White's granddaughter has compiled letters, essays, poems and photographs by a master of prose and lover of dogs.

Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood (Siglio). Wood is a geographer who has created an unusual atlas of his half-square mile neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C. "Lester's Paper Route in Space and Time," "Rhythm of the Sun," "Jack-o'-lanterns"--it's maps, it's art, it's hard to describe, it's fascinating.

Bald Eagle Nest: A Story of Survival in Photographs by Kate Davis (Stackpole Books). Davis photographed a bald eagle pair over a nesting season as they raised their four chicks to adulthood. Stunning birds, stunning photos.

Saving Eagle Mitch: One Good Deed in a Wicked World by Barbara Chepaitis (Excelsior/SUNY Press). In 2010, a Navy SEAL rescued a wounded Steppe eagle in war-torn Afghanistan and decided to find it a safer home--a small act of grace that rippled into others' lives. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Writer's Life

Drew Magary: The Hilarious Nightmare of Parenting

Drew Magary is a correspondent for GQ and a columnist for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also the author of Men with Balls: The Pro Athlete's Handbook and the science fictional The Postmortal. He lives in Maryland with his wife and three kids. You can watch the video for Magary's humorous parenting memoir, Someone Could Get Hurt (just out from Gotham Books), here.

Are you able to point to a moment that was the genesis or inspiration for Someone Could Get Hurt?

My third kid was born with some pretty serious issues, and it was clear that I was gonna have to write about them. Not that it was my priority to do that, of course. I was standing over his incubator in the NICU being like wow, what great material! That would make me a monster. But this was a very big personal moment that seemed to justify structuring a book around.

I should note that the book is fun as well. I don't want you thinking the whole thing is sick baby. It's, like, 15% sick baby. Just the right amount.

Your previous book, Postmortal, was a science fiction thriller. How did the process of writing that compare to writing a memoir?

A novel is much harder because you have to dream up characters and you have to concoct a narrative that makes sense structurally. It's amazing how often you'll write a novel or a screenplay and be like, "Wait, he can't be in the warehouse when he was just in a Peruvian bathroom two scenes earlier!" It's really annoying. With a memoir, it's just you and the people you know. The trick is to turn that into something a reader will actually give a sh-t about.

As much as anything, this memoir seems meant as an antidote to the barrage of messages today's American parents get that they are inadequate. Does that sound about right?

Yeah, I think so. Pretty much every parenting book now is about how badly we're f---ing up or what we need to do to not f--k up. And those books fail to recognize that f---ing up is part of the whole process, that kids and parents have to figure out their relationship to each other together. At least most of us try. I want credit for actually trying.

The descriptions of your wife's ordeals in labor can be graphic. Do you think potential mothers might think twice after reading this book?

Nah, they already know what they're getting into. Although, now that I think about it, my wife was legitimately shocked when the delivery of our first child turned out to be so torturous. She was like, "I had no idea." And I was like, "Hasn't pop culture and books warned you enough over the years to know that you were gonna go through hell on Earth?" You gotta know.

What would you say are the main challenges today's parents in the U.S. face?

Off the top of my head, money. Like, you need five billion dollars just to prop up one lousy kid. Every day, I'm thinking, "Christ, I need to accrue more money or else these people will end up living among hobos."

Also, peers. Peers are the worst. I know that one day, my kids will make friends with some awful kids who introduce them to cocaine and bestiality porn and then all my hard work is ruined. I hate the idea of it already.

And then there's the culture. I don't mean just video games and porn. I mean, like, society. We eat horribly. We have entrenched educational bureaucracies that are failing. We shoot everything. It's this gauntlet that I have to somehow take my kids through and hope they emerge 20 years later unscathed. What are the odds? One percent? It's terrifying.

It was an interesting choice to devote a chapter in this memoir to alcohol addiction. How do you think it ties in with the overall theme of parenting?

To me, it's just one of many terrible mistakes I've made that inform what kind of Dad I am today. Once you have kids, every decision you make affects them in some way, and you have to keep that in mind.

This memoir, which is mostly lighthearted, is bookended by a really terrifying event. What made you decide to structure the book that way?

I swear I don't mean this to be callous, but it helps hook the reader right away. It gets you to sympathize with our family before we go off and do a bunch of stupid crap.

Are you going to let your kids read this book?

Not right now. Hell no.

Do you think you'll keep being invited to neighborhood events after this book comes out?

Oh yeah. The neighbors have read it. If they didn't like it, they're too polite to tell me. THE PERFECT CRIME. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown

The triumphant moment at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when the eight rowers and one coxswain in the Husky Clipper won the gold medal for the United States in the eight-oared crew race has not only gone down in Olympic record books but also is captured in the glorious rowing sequences in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, one of the greatest films about athletic competitions.

To some--including Adolf Hitler, who watched that race from the viewing platform at Langer See regatta grounds in Grünau--the University of Washington crew representing the United States had scored an upset. To Al Ulbrickson, the Washington rowing coach, the victory was not entirely a surprise, although Ulbrickson, nicknamed "The Dour Dane" for his extreme reticence, was not a guy to risk jinxing a race by even thinking a win might be a sure thing.

Ulbrickson may not have been talkative, but he was fiercely competitive; for years he had been obsessed with the winning record of Ky Ebright, head coach at the University of California, Berkeley, Ulbrickson's arch rival. Ebright had led his crews to Olympic gold medals in 1928 and 1932. Ulbrickson was determined to develop rowers who would best those Ebright coached at Berkeley. And in April 1933 his obsession finally paid off when the University of Washington crews swept the annual Pacific Regatta.

Those 1933 wins emboldened Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles, his freshman rowing coach, to launch an intensive drive to find and train a crew that could capture Olympic Gold in the 1936 Games. Bolles and Ulbrickson knew the qualities they were looking for: potential for raw power, stamina, willpower, the intelligence to master rowing technique and the ability to drop all traces of personal ego once seated in the boat--even if these new recruits had never before rowed a boat. As George Pocock, who built the Husky Clipper and so many other prize racing shells, said, "What matters more than how hard a man rows is how well everything he does in the boat harmonizes with what the other fellows are doing."

In the fall of 1933, a new crop of rowing candidates arrived on the Seattle campus. One of those was Joe Rantz. Strong, disciplined, earnest and determined to break free of a childhood history of poverty and abandonment, Rantz saw making the rowing team as one of the ways to fund college—not because there was anything like athletic scholarships back then but because being on the crew meant he was eligible for part-time jobs on campus. Rantz was almost made to order for his coaches' requirements. The other rowers who trained with Rantz filled the bill just as he did.

To make the crew and stay on the roster was hard work, with mandatory daily workouts and intense competition for a rowing position. And, like most coaches in 1933, Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson were the undisputed bosses with a strictly business attitude, constantly monitoring the performance of their rowers.

Daniel James Brown's enthralling history of the run-up to the 1936 Olympic victory shows in vivid detail the many factors, including Ulbrickson's strategy for keeping his rowers on edge and hungry, that had to come together between 1933 to 1936 so that the Husky Clipper and its crew would be first to cross the finish line at Berlin's Langer See regatta course.

With nail-biting suspense, Brown shows how each of the seven key qualifying races before the Berlin Olympics was hard fought. Victories were not only the result of skill, dedication, planning, teamwork and strategy, but also the weather conditions on specific courses--the races on Seattle's Lake Washington, the Oakland Estuary near Berkeley and the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie for the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta. With calm assurance and telling detail, Brown establishes that rare, thrilling you-are-there quality that epitomizes the best in sports writing.

What's more, Brown's storytelling captures the personalities and psychologies of all the players, from the behind-the-scenes boat builder and rowing guru George Pocock to the brilliant and self-assured coxswain Bobby Moch, the shortest man in the boat. Brown completes his complex portrait of Al Ulbrickson with the coach's statement to United Press International, after the Olympic victory was safely in hand, finally allowing himself to say what he could never say before: the crew was "the finest I ever saw seated in a shell. And I've seen some corking boatloads."

Brown eloquently sums up all that he's shown us contributing to that amazing Olympic victory in Berlin: "Everything had converged: the right oarsmen, with the right attitudes, the right personalities, the right skills; the perfect boat, sleek, balanced, and wickedly fast; a winning strategy at both long and short distances; a coxswain with the guts and smarts to make hard decisions and make them fast." --John McFarland

Viking, $28.95, hardcover, 9780670025817

Daniel James Brown: Rowing Rivalries

photo: Robin V. Brown

Raised and educated in California, Daniel James Brown taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (2006), his first book after turning his talents to writing full time, was named one of the best books of 2006 by the American Library Association and was a finalist in the Washington State Book Awards for 2007. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (2009) continued Brown's concentration on nonfiction narratives of significant historical events rendered compelling by in-depth portraits of the individuals involved and affected. Now, he has written an enthralling story of the 1936 Olympics rowing team from Seattle, The Boys in the Boat. Brown lives in the country outside of Seattle, Wash., with his wife, two daughters and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens and honeybees.

You mention the serendipitous discovery that Joe Rantz, one of the rowers on the 1936 U.S. Olympic eight-man rowing team, was living next door to you. When did you realize that you had stumbled on a great story, one that could become a major book?

courtesy Judith Willman

The first time I talked with Joe about his upbringing and his crew experiences, I noted that tears came readily to his eyes at certain junctures. Men don't generally cry easily, so I knew immediately that there was something extraordinary going on. As he unfolded more of his story to me, I began to see that all the elements of a great tale were there—intense competition between individuals, bitter rivalries between schools, a boy left alone in the world, a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother. But I think what really clinched it for me was that the climax to the story was played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—and played out in the presence of Hitler and his entourage. Really, what more could a storyteller ask for?

What was your exposure to competitive collegiate rowing before you began this project?

I had virtually no experience with or understanding of collegiate rowing when I began my research. The only awareness I had of the sport growing up was that in the 1930s my father had been a huge fan of Ky Ebright's crew at the University of California, Berkeley. Ironically, Ebright turns out to be one of the principal antagonists for Joe and the boys in the boat, as Cal was their main rival through much of their story.

Unloading in Hamburg. (photo courtesy Judith Willman)

Because of my unfamiliarity with the sport, I strove to make sure I got everything right on a technical level as well as on a psychological level. I immersed myself in rowing lore, interviewed oarsmen and coaches, went out on the water with the freshman crew from the University of Washington, and generally learned everything I could about the sport. I don't think I've ever researched anything so thoroughly in my life.

Did you realize from the outset the variety of rivalries you would be uncovering in your research?

I understood the basic rivalries between the crews from different schools right from the get-go, but I discovered many of the deeper conflicts and rivalries one at a time as I did the research. And there were plenty to discover. The rivalry between West Coast and East Coast crews was really just one facet of a deep cultural and economic divide between East Coast and West Coast that predominated in many areas of life in the 1930s. In particular, the economic disparity between the homespun boys from the west and the very elite young men who rowed for many of the eastern schools couldn't have been starker, particularly at the height of the Depression. There was another real divide at work in the country with regard to how to deal with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Many wanted to ignore it; some wanted to confront it; a few even wanted to embrace it. We forget today how bitter the conflict over the proposed boycott of the 1936 Olympics was, and how systematically Jewish Americans were still excluded from much of American society.

All of the boys in the University of Washington boat were deeply affected by the economic catastrophes of the Great Depression, yet they continued their commitment to rowing. What kept their focus on the boat and the goals their coaches set for them despite the economic hardships they faced?

In some ways I think the hardships helped them focus and become what they were—arguably the greatest collegiate crew of all time. The ravages of the Depression humbled them, as it humbled everyone from bankers to janitors. But that humbling—the humility earned at the hands of hardship—was the very thing that allowed them to reach out to each other, come together, strive together for something that would transcend the hard times and redeem their lives. It allowed them, even compelled them, to throw everything they had into what they were doing on the crew, if not for their own sakes then for the sakes of the other fellows. I think that's what Joe's tears were about all those years later—the enormous gratitude he felt toward his crewmates for having joined with him in accomplishing the great feat of his life.

You bring the central role of Bobby Moch, the coxswain for the UW crew, to life in a thrilling way. How did you reconstruct his strategies for the decisive races you describe?

Bobby Moch passed away before I began writing the book, but I spent a good deal of time with his daughter, Marilynn, and in many ways she turned out to be a good proxy for Bob—smart, pugnacious, eager to talk. She also shared her father's scrapbook with me, and that was the source of many of the details of how he approached the races. When you hear some interviews Moch did later in life in which he talked very specifically about how he approached particular races, you really get an appreciation for how crafty he was. He thought through every race in advance but he was very quick-witted and particularly adept at improvising as circumstances changed. One of his favorite improvisations was to shout insults at his competition to take their heads out of the race. Another was to lie to his own crew about where they stood in the race in order to get a little more effort out of them.

You begin each chapter with a quote from George Yeoman Pocock, the man who built the rowing shells the boys in the boat used and a philosopher of rowing besides. How did you select those quotes?

Many of them come from Gordon Newell's excellent biography of Pocock, Ready All! Others are from his son Stan's equally interesting book, Way Enough! Still others I tracked down in various obscure publications. One even comes from an encouraging note Pocock wrapped around an oar before shipping it off to a U.S. Olympic crew. Since pretty much everything the man said was worth pondering, my job was just a matter of coupling quotes with chapters in ways that resonated with what I was doing.

How did Pocock's innovation in using western red cedar and its importance to rowing faster come to your attention?

The Husky Clipper, the cedar shell in which the boys rowed to Olympic glory in 1936, is on display these days in the University of Washington shell house, and all you have to do is take a quick look at it to appreciate what an extraordinarily beautiful thing a well-wrought cedar boat is. I think that's what first got me interested in the boat itself—just seeing it hanging from the rafters gleaming under the spotlights that are trained on it. But it quickly became apparent to me as I talked to Joe that Pocock and his craftsmanship and the wood he used were all mingled together at the heart of the story. It was from Pocock and his absolute devotion to his craft and the materials he used that Joe and the other boys learned to reach for a higher standard in all that they did, to revere something larger, and more abstract, than themselves.

The extent to which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tried to use Berlin as an international propaganda tool for the 1936 Olympics is shocking not only in its attention to the minutest detail but also in its effectiveness. Did you find resistance to your digging into what was had been done in Berlin and Germany and how various parties turned a blind eye to what was going on?

This was absolutely the biggest revelation I experienced in doing my research for the book. I mean, I knew that the 1936 Olympics were a propaganda coup for the Nazi regime, but it really wasn't until I dug into the material that I understood just how deliberately, and cynically, the whole thing was choreographed. It also came as some surprise to me to realize how many Americans and Europeans attending the Games came away utterly snookered by the show. Even some of the boys came home feeling that Germany wasn't as bad a place as some were saying. All that quickly changed as the war threat deepened, but initially the scope of the deception and its success were both staggering. One of the most chilling things I came across was a Nazi propaganda book written and published in English by an American citizen. It read as if Goebbels himself had written it.

We know when we start reading The Boys in the Boat that this Husky crew will win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Yet you produce one surprise after another and build nail-biting suspense into each race you describe. Do you have any tips for other writers for peppering narratives with thrilling surprises?

Ha! I have to admit that I was perplexed at first as to how I was going to make so many crew races interesting. But I soon found that each race really had its own rhythm, its own set of constraints, its own inherent drama. That said, I think one thing that helped was slowing time down and looking at each moment of any given race from every possible vantage point—what was happening in the boat, what was happening on shore, what was happening in the coaches' launches, what was happening in the heads of individual rowers. And it helps in re-creating the essence of the race for the reader, that any kind of race naturally builds to a crescendo of some kind, even if the crescendo comes before the finish. Other than that, I would just remind writers that you don't have to use something just because you happen to know it. The surest way to make something tighter and more compelling is to cut, not to add.

Univ. of Washington Libraries Special Collections UW1705

In the final analysis, what do you find that a successful rowing crew requires?

Guts. After talking to many coaches and rowers one thing has become crystal clear to me: rowing is an extraordinarily demanding sport on both a physical and psychological level. People who succeed at it, at least at its highest level, seem to possess two seemingly irreconcilable traits: on one hand, a strong belief in themselves as individuals; on the other hand, a willingness to throw their egos overboard and subsume their individual needs and desires to the needs of the crew. It's a kind of paradox, and rowing coaches will tell you that it's terribly hard to find the right combination of self-confidence and selflessness. They will also tell you that putting together a whole crew requires a careful balancing act, mixing and matching personalities in such a way that they complement one another.

In the case of this particular University of Washington eight-oared crew, they bonded with one another in a way that lasted until the day they died. I see them as a kind of metaphor for that whole generation of men—the ones who lived through the Depression and the war and emerged as our fathers and uncles and grandfathers. I think they learned humility from what they endured, and humility became the gateway through which they were able to approach one another, extend helping hands to one another, and get things done. --John McFarland

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Candy

Classic Books' Author Annotations; Signs of Book Addiction

"Readers come in two editions: those who write in their books, and those who don't," Flavorwire observed in featuring a selection of "classic books annotated by famous authors."


"The first step is admitting it. The second step is to keep right on reading." Buzzfeed revealed "25 signs you're addicted to books."


Flavorwire found "10 famous literary characters that are significantly younger than you think."


Rory MacLean, author of Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma, recommended his "top 10 books on Burma," from George Orwell to Aung San Suu Kyi, for the Guardian.


Instructables offered tips on building "storage hiding bookcases."

Book Review

Mystery & Thriller

The Caretaker

by A.X. Ahmad

The protagonist of A.X. Ahmad's The Caretaker is a former officer in India's mountain division, patrolling the Siachen glacier between India and Pakistan. It's a no-man's land neither country particularly wants--though each fiercely wants to prevent the other from having it. Captain Ranjit Singh led a doomed squadron--16 Indian soldiers died--in a shady friendly-fire attack meant to discredit Pakistan and build Indian political support for war. When Singh refused to reveal the deception, he was court-martialed and imprisoned. After his release, his steadfast wife and young daughter reluctantly accompany him to Boston to escape further political persecution.

A devout Sikh committed to the symbolic uncut hair and turban of his religion, Singh finds nothing in Boston but menial labor and abuse until he takes his family to Martha's Vineyard to do landscaping for the wealthy. When winter comes and the island shuts down, Singh finds himself caretaker of several mansions... and Ahmad's leisurely novel of Indian culture shifts into a high-speed story of international espionage, troubled marriage, government deceit and murder.

Against the car chases, pit bull attacks, knife fights and adultery, Ahmad skillfully balances the internal ambiguity of Singh, "a brown man in a turban" struggling with his religious beliefs, marital traditions and military training in an America frightened and suspicious of all immigrants--and where it's impossible to get a good cup of chai. He is a complex character strong enough to drive what will likely be an interesting and welcome new series of literary crime novels. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kansas.

Discover: A.X. Ahmad makes his literary crime fiction debut, introducing readers to the immigrant Indian Sikh Ranjit Singh.

Minotaur, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250016843

Biography & Memoir

Walking with Jack: A Father's Journey to Become His Son's Caddie

by Don J. Snyder

"The smaller the ball used in the sport," George Plimpton once suggested, "the better the book." In January of 2007, Don Snyder and his 18-year-old son Jack flew to Scotland, the birthplace of golf, to play the famous courses at Carnoustie. Snyder hoped the daily rounds of wintery golf might nurture their tenuous father/son relationship and inspire Jack to pursue a collegiate golf scholarship. The motivating carrot for Jack: a PGA player card after college. The objective for his father was to carry his son's bag if he made the tour.

As writers frequently do, Snyder (Of Time and Memory) kept a diary of the next five years. Walking with Jack tells the story of Jack's performance with the University of Toledo's golf team, including his first national tournament and a suspension for poor grades. It tells of Snyder leaving his home in Maine to be an apprentice caddie in Scotland doing double loops for £100 tips. And, like all good sports books, it translates the challenges of the game into life lessons. Jack learns to persevere, "limiting the damage from mistakes," and finally gets his card. Snyder learns that a caddie is not just a bag carrier; as he writes, "there are those times when he carries his golfer as well." That's the really important lesson, just as Walking with Jack is really Snyder's story. The light bulb comes on when he realizes that being a good caddie is at the heart of being a good father. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A father's five-year diary of his son's path to professional golf, which he plans to observe as his caddie.

Doubleday, $25.95, hardcover, 9780385536356

On Wheels: Five Easy Pieces

by Michael Holroyd

English biographer Michael Holroyd (Lytton Strachey) takes a short trip down memory lane with the stylish automotive autobiography On Wheels.

As a young boy, Holroyd went to his grandparents' garage where he would comfortably nestle into their old car to read Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. During his two years in the army, he served as the regiment's Motor Transport Officer--"no one seemed to mind that I didn't have a driving licence--later on I was told I could have awarded myself one." Instead, he took lessons from a "man who reminded me of a peculiarly fierce sergeant major let loose from the army." Later, he was able to teach his wife, novelist Margaret Drabble, to drive (she's better than he is).

There are also many wonderful anecdotes about Holroyd's biographical subjects and cars. The painter Augustus John took friends on a successful drive from London to Dorset, but since his driving lesson had "never touched on the philosophy of gear changing, the car had been in first gear from start to finish." And it was George Bernard Shaw, who loved bicycles and cars, who gave Lawrence of Arabia the motorcycle he was riding when he swerved to avoid some boys, crashed and died.

On Wheels is short, with lovely illustrations--the layout and design add quaintness and charm, making it an ideal present for drivers more enamored of the mystique and history of the motor car than its speedy, flashy side. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A nostalgic literary road trip with a witty, elegant guide.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18, hardcover, 9780374226572


Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey

by Peter Carlson

Peter Carlson's Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy opens with the capture of its titular subjects near Vicksburg in 1863, then rewinds to show how they landed in such a predicament. Albert Richardson, an enterprising journalist for the New York Tribune, had decided to travel south as an undercover correspondent, and naturally chose his best friend and fellow newspaperman Junius Browne to accompany him. The stakes were high if they were discovered--the Tribune was reviled as a liberal abolitionist paper--but the two young men were game for adventure. After their capture, they spent nearly two years in a series of Confederate prisons before escaping, half-starved and freezing, to trek overland toward Union lines in December 1864. 

Despite the serious and frequently tragic nature of Albert and Junius's story, the book's title signals the often playful tone that Carlson (K Blows Top) employs. The descriptions of Confederate prisons like Libby, Castle Thunder and Salisbury are horrific, but there is also the occasional scene of mirth--as when prisoners put on a variety show to celebrate the 4th of July. Besides Junius and Albert, the other colorful personalities in Carlson's history include a larger-than-life "Union pilot" skilled at guiding refugees over the mountains to freedom, and a beautiful young Southern horsewoman who rescues them during a perilous moment. With eccentric and likeable characters like these, Carlson's history successfully masquerades as an entertaining adventure story. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Adventure, suspense, and a dash of romance make for a highly readable--and absolutely true--Civil War story.

PublicAffairs, $26.99, hardcover, 9781610391542

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

by Theresa Levitt

In the 18th century, many European lighthouses proved more harmful than helpful to passing ships. Their weak beams, shoddy equipment and inconsistent timing often lured ships nearer to shore, only to have them founder on the rocks. The work of French physicist Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827) proved a crucial development in the science of light and the future of maritime navigation, as Theresa Levitt recounts in A Short Bright Flash.

Trained as an engineer, Fresnel devoted his spare time to physics, including a radical series of experiments on the wavelike behavior of light. Though his findings shocked the French scientific community (where light was still widely believed to be a particle), Fresnel persisted in his research. Eventually, he constructed a new type of lens that used a complex set of prisms to both reflect and refract light. When installed in lighthouses, the beams from his lenses outshone those of competitors by many miles, leading to Fresnel's involvement in France's Lighthouse Commission and his work in lighting the entire French coast.

Fresnel died young, but his brother, Leonor, carried on Augustin's work. Levitt traces the spread of Fresnel's ideas and lenses to England, Scotland and eventually the United States, devoting most of an interesting (if somewhat tangential) chapter to the prominence of lighthouses in the Civil War. Although the politics of lighthouse governance occasionally slow the narrative down, Levitt weaves together science and history to explore the impact of a man who helped light the way for sailors around the world. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A science historian reveals the role of French physicist Augustin Fresnel in creating a powerful kind of lighthouse lens that revolutionized maritime navigation.

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 9780393068795

Current Events & Issues

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness

by Alfredo Corchado

The 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States is the world's 10th longest and the most heavily trafficked, with some 350 million people crossing every year. Alfredo Corchado and three of his siblings were born in Mexico, before his parents entered the U.S. as part of the Bracero program to provide much needed labor after World War II. As he grew up in El Paso, crossing back and forth to Ciudad Juárez was taken for granted by his family and friends.

Since 1994, Corchado has lived in Mexico City, first as a Dallas Morning News correspondent and then as a bureau chief. As such, he's had personal access to the four Mexican presidents who held office as the nation made the transition to a full-fledged multi-party democracy. During this time, roughly 170 Mexican journalists were killed or "disappeared" in the course of reporting cartel violence, police bribery and political corruption.

Midnight in Mexico is Corchado's attempt to describe--and more importantly understand--both his personal heritage and his dangerous occupation. In doing so, he provides a glimpse of the deep intertwined roots of the United States and Mexico. As he concludes while looking across the Texas border: "We are the same geography, one blood, two countries dancing out of step, two souls still clashing. My feet were planted on U.S. soil. Mexico was in my sights. I did not want to be anywhere else or anyone else." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The moving memoir of a Mexican-born American journalist covering the dangerous world of Mexican cartels and political corruption.

Penguin Press, $27.95, hardcover, 9781594204395

Health & Medicine

My Beef with Meat: The Healthiest Argument for Eating a Plant-Strong Diet--Plus 140 New Engine 2 Recipes

by Rip Esselstyn

The cover photograph for My Beef with Meat, showing a handsome Texas firefighter, may bring to mind words like courageous, heroic and virile. But "plant-strong" may not be on the list--unless one already knows Rip Esselstyn for his Engine 2 (E2) Diet and as the son of the surgeon whose cardiac disease-reversing program may have saved President Clinton's life.

Impressed by his father's extensive research and by his own health and vitality after becoming a vegetarian, Esselstyn published The Engine 2 Diet in 2009; he immediately received a visit to his firehouse from the Texas Beef Council, bearing gifts of brisket and other carnivorous treats. However, Esselstyn believes "things have changed dramatically... all over the country people are learning about healthy plant-based diets." In My Beef with Meat, Esselstyn debunks 36 common myths about meat-based diets (e.g., plant-based diets do not lack protein), providing research, testimonials and a common sense perspective.

"People always ask me how I was able to get a bunch of burger-munching, ice cream-scarfing, milk-guzzling Texas firefighters to eat a healthy, whole food, plant-strong diet," he writes. "It's all about making and eating kickass food that everyone from housewives to firefighters, from kids to seniors will truly love."

Each of the 140 "kickass" recipes include no animal products or by-products, no added extracted oils, little salt, minimally processed sugars, and are simple to prepare. They range from Savory Shiitake and Cheesy Oats to Spicy Southern Grits, PBJB (the usual, plus bananas) Burrito and many more. Esselstyn aims to make a "plant-strong" diet a desire, rather than a duty. --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: Rip Esselstyn says, "If a firehouse full of good ol' boys in Austin, Texas, can [go meatless], any house, and I mean any house, can do this."

Grand Central, $25, hardcover, 9781455509362


Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race

by Larry Colton

After Larry Colton came out of the minors and washed out of major league baseball after pitching just one game with the Phillies in 1968, he took his UC Berkeley degree and reinvented himself as a writer (Counting Coup; Goat Brothers). When Johnny "Blue Moon" Odom came to the AA Southern League's Birmingham Barons in 1964, though, he was an uneducated, fatherless 19-year-old African-American with a gifted fastball--and that's all. He had no plan B.

In Southern League, Colton tells the story of Odom and his teammates, black and white, as they struggled to fight their way into "the bigs" in one of America's most racially volatile cities during the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Colton applies his personal knowledge of the league--he played for the Macon Peaches--to his account of the ballparks (including Birmingham's legendary Rickwood Field), the players and the segregated small-town hotels and diners they encountered on the road. The Barons finished one game back of Lynchburg--quite possibly because Odom was brought up to the Kansas City A's shortly before the season's end. (He would shuttle between the major and minor leagues several times over the next few years before hitting his stride after the A's moved to Oakland.) If the integrated Barons didn't win the pennant, at least they helped bury some of Bull Connor's Birmingham bigotry--and that's its own kind of winning season. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kas.

Discover: A minor league baseball team playing in one of the Deep South's most notoriously segregated cities took its talented--and integrated--lineup nearly all the way to the championship.

Grand Central, $28, hardcover, 9781455511884


Dad Is Fat

by Jim Gaffigan

The most shocking part of comedian Jim Gaffigan's hilarious Dad Is Fat is that he and his wife live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment with five children. As he explains the long, painstaking process of putting the children to bed and recounts the arduous task of applying sunscreen to five extremely pale children, it's comical for the sheer fact that it's not happening to you.

As his acting career has skyrocketed, Gaffigan has also spent the last seven years doing some major baby-making, and in the process provided himself prime material. Constantly sleep-deprived, often used as a human trampoline by his offspring, he nonetheless gives his family his all, even renting a colossal tour bus so he can take them all with him on the road. That's dedication. Or insanity. Gaffigan would argue being a father ensures both.

Although the comedian dislikes being referred to as "family-friendy" (his argument is that anything family friendly generally stinks--think chain restaurants), his writing has a likable vibe to it that conjures up a chat with the funny dad at the playground. While he pokes fun at hipster parents who name their children after spices, the person who gets the most ridicule in Dad Is Fat is Gaffigan himself. The added element that he must navigate the wilds of New York City with his brood makes for good reading, whether his children are peeing in the sandbox of a public park or licking subway poles. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: Comedian Jim Gaffigan's side-splitting observations on parenting five children in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

Crown Archetype, $25, hardcover, 9780385349055

Children's & Young Adult

Better to Wish

by Ann M. Martin

Ann M. Martin (Ten Rules for Living with My Sister) begins a quartet spanning four generations of a family with a heartfelt novel that deals with some weighty issues. Yet Martin infuses enough hope into the novel so it never feels heavy.

Set in the 1930s, the book covers 15 years, and follows eight-year-old Abby Nichols to her early 20s. Though the family business is successful during the Great Depression, all is not well with the Nichols family. Abby and her younger sister, Rose, navigate from childhood to adolescence while dealing with Pop's anger, prejudice and control, as well as the mysterious condition plaguing their baby brother. In later chapters, their father surreptitiously sends Abby's mentally challenged brother away to boarding school, and their mother suffers from what would today likely be called post-partum depression. The book may well remind readers of the Little House on the Prairie series, with Abby's overriding characteristic of determination in the face of hardship.

Better to Wish walks a fine line, managing a remarkably relevant, current feel while retaining the charm of yesteryear. Abby becomes a terrific role model, choosing to follow her own dreams rather than focusing on marriage and simple clerical work, as her peers do. She's an independent, fiercely lovable heroine. This book is sure to become an instant favorite and draw readers back for subsequent stories of Abby's daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter. --Kyla Paterno, trade book buyer and blogger, Garfield Book Company at PLU

Discover: An independent-minded young woman navigates life, love and tragedy in the 1930s.

Scholastic, $16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 8-12, 9780545359429

Toys in Space

by Mini Grey

Mini Grey follows in the tradition of her picture books starring Traction Man with the tale of a group of toys left in the yard, who combat their fear of the dark with an imaginative story of derring-do.

"That summer night, for the first time, the toys were left outside," the book begins, setting a scene for possible catastrophe. Will it rain? Will a dog see them as chew toys? Will they be coveted by a neighbor child? No. "The sun went down, the sky grew dark, and, for the very first time...," reads the text in three horizontal panels with a time-lapse of the dimming sunlight, "the toys saw this." With a turn of the page, Grey reveals the wonder of the starlit sky dominating a double-page spread: "Everyone was quiet for a while." But then their anxieties begin to creep up ("I don't like the dark!"; "I may get damp!"). WonderDoll starts improvising a story in which all the toys play a role, with a spaceship and an alien called Hoctopize in search of its lost toy, Cuddles. Grey cleverly divides the pages to indicate the story WonderDoll tells, and the comments and suggestions added by her toy compatriots.

In all of her books, Grey extols the benefits of imaginative play in real time with real settings and real stuffed toys and action figures. Her own leaps of creativity cannot help but inspire the same instinct in boys and girls everywhere. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Mini Grey's latest flight of fancy, with toys that must make it through a night under the stars.

Knopf, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-8, 9780307978127

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