Fall books take on big-picture issues

Mark Eberhart
The Kansas City Star

The president refers to the conflict with terrorists as World War III. More scientists conclude we're frying the planet. Even comic books go somber, with some set in Iraq.

Here we are, autumn 2006. Five years after Sept. 11, the world still is not a sanguine place.

Well, if you can't fix it, you might as well stay informed. To their credit, the major publishers this fall and early winter are providing plenty of books that examine the world and its woes.

On the fiction side, it's possible to recommend a few for the superb escape they provide, although even works of the imagination increasingly are grounded in grim realities.


The planet(s)

If you're going to read one book on the environment this fall, make it Helen Caldicott's "Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer." As the political and environmental problems with fossil fuels become more apparent, the temptation to turn to nuclear power is rising. The U.S. Energy Bill, for example, proposes construction of new nuclear plants.

But Caldicott, an Australian physician and Nobel nominee, contends in this compelling and compact book (221 pages) that there are good reasons nuclear plants have been out of favor for so long. The cost of building them is extraordinary, and power companies usually find ways to pass on those costs to taxpayers.

Sure, Caldicott is a longtime anti-nuke activist. And this is the kind of book you'd expect her to write, yet her decades of study and expertise make it a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. Furthermore, the costs of nuclear power are nothing compared with the risks she correctly cites, especially in the post-Sept. 11 world.

"Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to many events that could lead to meltdowns," Caldicott writes, "including human and mechanical errors; impacts from climate change, global warming, and earthquakes; and, we now know, terrorist attacks."

If you're going to read two books about the environment, make the second one Mark Bowen's "Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains." Published to little fanfare last year in hardcover, the paperback deserves a second chance. Bowen, who holds a doctorate in physics but also is a capable mountaineer, has spent considerable time with climatologist Lonnie Thompson documenting the retreat of glaciers.

Yes, the middle of the book gets thick with some technical details that might scare off some readers. Mostly, though, "Thin Ice" comes off as not only a necessary revelation but also a very good yarn, thanks in part to Bowen's excellent facility for describing the extreme environments he visited -- the high, lonely, wind-torn places of the planet, places most of us mortals never will see.

Also recommended: In "Junk Science," University of Chicago professor and ScienceWeek editor Dan Agin explains how special-interest groups distort accepted scientific knowledge. And Vanderbilt astronomy professor David A. Weintraub objects to the recent demotion of a celestial body in "Is Pluto a Planet?"



Political books are drowning in a Babel's brew of shouting, shrillness and in some cases utter stupidity and disregard for basic facts.

But not all of them. If you read one political book this autumn, make it Mark Halperin and John F. Harris' "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008." Halperin, ABC News director and creator of "The Note" (, teams with Washington Post political editor Harris to write the most fascinating and insightful political book of the year.

The authors make it clear they are not interested in praising or damning the policies and beliefs of the Bushes and Clintons, the two families who have between them held the White House since January 1989. Halperin and Harris focus instead on the political machinations that have made George H.W., George W., Bill and possibly Hillary in 2008 such strong forces.

Some hardcore partisans on both sides of the political spectrum will dislike this book. But it seems almost impossible to refute the authors' chief thesis: that the Bushes and Clintons have kept winning through careful damage control of their own public images even as they chip away at the images of their opponents. In short, this is the book Bob Dole, Al Gore and John Kerry must wish had been around when they were running -- and losing.

And if you don't think Hillary can win in `08 -- or if you think she's a lock -- you must read this book. Both Hillary and John McCain, whom the authors see as the strongest contenders on each side of the aisle, have assets and liabilities that could affect all our futures. How they might deploy them, or fail to do so, makes for mesmerizing reading.

Consider this passage regarding Clinton: "Perhaps Hillary Clinton's greatest weakness as a presidential candidate is the lack of a clear rationale and message. Such a rationale is essential to winning, but Clinton does not seem to have formulated one, let alone conveyed one to the public. The ultimate question of what a Hillary Clinton campaign and administration would be about is unanswered."

If you just absolutely need some partisan stroking: Conservatives might do well to consider Time magazine writer Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back." Progressives should enjoy North Dakota Sen. Byron L. Dorgan's "Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain Dead Politics Are Selling Out America." I think even books as well thought-out as these tend to be "preach to the choir" titles, but at least the authors took the trouble to write well.



Some authors struggle with the world and its governance; others wrestle with more philosophical questions.

Don't miss "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women," edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. Based on the gripping National Public Radio segments, the book version reproduces the life-mission statements of people both unknown and famous, from teachers and ad sales folks to novelists and musicians.

Here the reader will find musings from eminences such as Isabelle Allende, William F. Buckley Jr., Gloria Steinem and John Updike, but also the thoughts of individuals such as Eboo Patel, founder of Chicago's Interfaith Youth Core.

"I am an American Muslim," Patel writes in his essay. "I believe in pluralism. In the Holy Qur'an, God tells us, `I created you into diverse nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.' I believe America is humanity's best opportunity to make God's wish that we come to know one another a reality."

Excellent. And the book's introduction was penned by Studs Terkel, who reminded us that "Hope Dies Last."

A few self-explanatory titles to ponder: "A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State," by Darryl Hart; "The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness," by Lee Alan Dugatkin; "The God Delusion," by Richard Dawkins; "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World," by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman; and "Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation," by Jonathan Lear.



Finally, if all this reality is just too much: We sympathize.

Remember, there's always fiction, and nonfiction of a lighter variety. This January the magnificent Jim Harrison ("Legends of the Fall") returns with "Returning to Earth," a haunting novel about a Chippewa-Finnish man with a mortal problem. I'm not promising it'll make you happy, but Harrison's luminous prose should, at least, take your mind off nukes, ozone holes and pols.

In fact, lighter fare is rarely a bad idea. Don't forget to turn off the news before you begin reading.


© 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.





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