Book Reviews

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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.

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