Book Reviews

Attention shoppers! It’s taken decades of research and a financial slap upside the head, but the CEOs of retail have finally seen what’s been in front of their faces all along: Women are driving the economy. And it took a man to point out that not-so-surprising-to-the-rest-of-us fact.

In his decade-spanning psychological shopping manuals, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (2000) and What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly (2010), retail consultant and shopping guru Paco Underhill presents a bizarre bazaar of economic information in a fun and stylish manner.

Women possess a financial power that has gone unrecognized by many industries, and yet it shows no sign of abating. What Women Want may sound like another dating manual, but it’s an eye-opening account of how global retailers are beginning to court the customer they’ve counted on but haven’t been counting.

The Iliad may be the oldest narrative work in the Western canon. Homer’s epic focuses on an argument between Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior at Troy, and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, and the disastrous results of that argument.

What makes this work great? It looks at the serious matter of war, and at the devastating effects of armed conflict. Good men on both sides die, and their families and friends suffer terribly because of their loss. And it raises the issue of the individual and his part in society – to what extent are individual matters, such as honor, checked by obligations to the larger society.

It questions the validity of war – according to legend, the Trojan War began because Paris seduced Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and brought her to Troy. The Greeks attacked Troy to get Helen back. Stated baldly, that seems a silly reason to go to war. Most readers today would judge Menelaus well rid of his unfaithful spouse. Certainly his marital problems do not directly affect most of the Greek forces, which have only a remote connection to Sparta.

In Robert Stone’s newest collection of short stories, Fun With Problems, the characters have just that. They’re everyday people from all walks of life, yet all are addicts with something broken about them. Stone’s characters are slightly despicable but at the same time familiar enough to ease the reader into their world.

This is no feel-good read; rather, it’s for readers who can be painfully honest with themselves, who can recognize their own bad behavior mirrored in the characters and somehow find a way to defend those actions.  

The seven stories, ranging in length from four pages to nearly novella-length, build like a fitful night’s sleep of fever dreams -- the blanket tangles tighter and tighter as you toss. Though each story tells a different tale, they are linked together by a common core of loneliness and longing. These people’s lives would almost seem comical, if they weren’t so heartbreakingly true.

In the title story, a bitter, small-town attorney finds cruel delight in taking a pretty young thing and starting her down his same path to excess and corruption, before abandoning her to complete the journey by herself. In the shortest of these stories, “Honeymoon,” a man realizes after his second wedding that he has made a terrible mistake, only to follow it up with an even bigger mistake.  

Do you ever look up at the night sky and wonder …What else is out there? What’s left to discover in all those stars? What will they find in space in my lifetime? If so, you might enjoy reading Percival’s Planet, the new novel by Michael Byers.

Combining astronomy with a glimpse into 1930’s society, Byers spent five years researching every last detail for Percival’s Planet in order to successfully blend historical figures and facts with a supporting cast of fictional characters and subplots in a story which is ultimately about the discovery of Pluto.

The novel takes its name from Percival Lowell, an early 20th century astronomer who was highly ridiculed in his unsuccessful search for a planet beyond Neptune, which he named Planet X. Byers’ story re-imagines the early years of Clyde Tombaugh, a real-life, uneducated farm boy and amateur astronomer from Kansas who lucked into a job at Lowell Observatory and amazingly discovered Planet X (Pluto) in 1930.

In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, we get four stories: the histories of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. You might not think the story of a plant would be very compelling, but as our Plaza Branch Barista’s Book Club learned, Pollan intrigues readers through careful management of historical facts, research, and personal anecdotes.

Pollan, a journalist, author, and food activist, follows the co-evolution of each plant with humans – how they interact, how they have affected one another, and how that affects the world – using the framework of four human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and food.

Ever had a friend who would blurt out all the wrong things at the all the wrong times and yet was always funny in a screwball sort of way? That describes the wacky vibe and self-deprecating tone of Jen Lancaster’s new memoir, My Fair Lazy.

In her amusing fifth book, titled My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover If Not Being A Dumb Ass Is the New Black, or, a Culture-Up Manifesto, Lancaster decides to put down the remote on reality TV and focus on “an emergency cultural makeover,” or as she alternately calls it, “a Jenaissance.”

This true story begins when Lancaster meets her idol and fellow writer, Candace Bushnell, of Sex and the City fame. In a conversation between the two, Lancaster realizes she embarrassingly doesn’t have much to discuss past the latest episode of The Bachelor.

As the pages turn and Lancaster’s fast-food, couch-potato, trash-TV lifestyle painfully blossoms into a cosmopolitan success, she discovers new restaurants, enjoys fine wines, goes to live theater, takes in various music forms and eclectic art styles, and even reads classic literature.

Leo Tolstoy

At about 1,400 pages (depending on the translation), War and Peace is quite a challenge. The weak of heart, or those who suffer easily from eye strain, need not apply themselves to this work. That said, Leo Tolstoy’s epic is well worth the effort.

This historical novel is set in the early 19th century, during Russia’s wars with Napoleon. Covering about a decade’s time (from about 1805 to 1815), the novel treats about a dozen main characters, exploring how they are affected by the wars and the peace that separates and follows the wars.

What distinguishes this novel from other historical novels dealing with the same period, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series or Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, is the depth of Tolstoy’s exploration of his characters’ lives and the way in which they are woven into the fabric of the history of those times. This is not simply an historical novel, but a meditation on history, using fiction to tell history.

The Feed by Mira Grant

This year I have the great honor of being a member of the American Library Association’s national committee to pick the best genre books of the year for the award called The Reading List. I am spending my year reading brand-new books in seven different genres and am, along with my committee members, trying to find the year’s best-of-the-best in Romance, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Women's Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery and Horror.  

I thought I would begin with Horror since, until I started on this committee, I was sure I didn’t like horror. Imagine my surprise when I found that Horror has grown and now includes many categories that I had never thought of before. In fact, I find that I am really enjoying many of the books I’ve been assigned to read, especially the post-apocalyptic stories.

Now, after reading these novels, my biggest question has become “Why are the only survivors of an apocalypse always under the age of 25?”Granted, I have taken Facebook quizzes that suggest I have the survival skills of a kumquat but really, is it so much to ask that I be allowed to survive the apocalypse so that I, too, can be eaten by horrific, genetically engineered bugs?

Without further ado -- and in alphabetical order -- here's my list of the year’s best Horror, along with links to the books in our catalog, when applicable.

The survivors of the Lawrence Massacre are featured in a new book.

Of William Quantrill, the Reverend H.D. Fisher wrote: “In him were represented courage and cowardice; successful leadership, intrigue, cunning, desperation, revenge and hate, all to a marked degree.” Fisher would have known, too – Quantrill nearly killed him.

Fisher was one of the survivors of the 1863 guerrilla raid on Lawrence, Kansas, that left 180 dead and much of the town burned to the ground. A new book by a local scholar examines how the survivors of the Lawrence Massacre rebuilt their town and their lives.

Lawrence historian Katie Armitage comes to the Central Library on Sunday, August 29, at 2 p.m. to discuss her new book, Lawrence Survivors of Quantrill’s Raid. The event is free and open to the public; RSVP here to reserve a seat.

Lies My Teacher Told Me - Loewen

Have you ever wondered whether history books were telling the truth? James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me sheds some new light on American history – and how high school textbooks are getting it wrong. Loewen speaks on misconceptions about slavery and the Underground Railroad on Thursday, July 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library.

Professor Loewen, a race relations expert and author of five books, opens Lies my Teacher Told Me with a simple assertion: "High school students hate history." From the students' perspective, he argues, history is both too complicated and too simple. Loewen finds that high school textbooks offer a dizzying array of information, with books averaging 4.5 pounds and 888 pages. At the same time, the stories presented in textbooks all feature neat, clean facts imparted with bland patriotism. This method, Loewen argues, reduces history to "a gray emotional landscape of pious duty" rather than a dramatic landscape of interrelated stories and events.

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