Barbara’s Picks, Jun. 2013, Pt. 2: al-Shaykh, Charleson, Ferguson, Griswold, Shriver, Solnit

al-Shaykh, Hanan. One Thousand and One Nights: A Sparkling Retelling of the Beloved Classic. Pantheon. Jun. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780307958860. $26; eISBN 9780307958877. LITERATURE
A crucial and sometimes controversial figure in Middle Eastern literature, Lebanese author al-Shaykh here translates 19 of the stories young queen Shahrazad told her husband each night so that he would spare her life. Notably, al-Shaykh is the first Arab woman to undertake a translation, and, notably, this translation had its start as a play she wrote and staged in Edinburgh a year ago (now heading for London’s West End). So expect good dramatic framing and an illumination of social and sexual undercurrents—al-Shaykh has bravely probed such issues in contemporary settings in novels like Women of Sand and Myrrh.

Charleson, Susannah. The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing. Houghton Harcourt. Jun. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780547734934. $27. PETS
A service dog trainer and canine search-and-rescue team member whose Scent of the Missing was a New York Times best seller (and the basis for a TV pilot in production for a TNT drama series), Charleson returns to recount her experience with therapy dogs. That experience began when she found herself traumatized by a particularly ghastly search mission and healed with the help of her search dog, Puzzle. Here she talks about “possibility” dogs like Merlin, a black Lab puppy that had been tossed in a garbage can; Merlin now eases his human’s panic attacks. With therapy dogs ever more in evidence and so many humans interested in all things canine, this should be a hit.

Ferguson, Niall. The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Jun. 2013. 192p. ISBN 9781594205453. $26.95. HISTORY
After another dust-up with Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, The New Yorker called Ferguson “the conservative bomb-thrower in residence at the Daily Beast/Newsweek” (and Krugman the “designated liberal curmudgeon of the Times”). Harvard/Oxford/Stanford–associated Ferguson (The Ascent of Money) is no fan of Obama’s economic policies. So it’s no surprise that his analysis of how rich countries fail blames a broken democratic contract (through overspending that will hurt future generations) and overregulation (which hurts free markets). Representative government and the free market are among the four “pillars” cited by Ferguson as the reason Western European and North American countries have been in ascendance since 1500, the others being the rule of law (now of lawyers) and civil society (now sometimes decidedly uncivil). Not everyone will agree with Ferguson (I’m in the Krugman camp myself), but his book should generate big discussion—which one hopes will be civil.

Griswold, Mac. The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. Farrar. Jun. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780374266295. $26. HISTORY
While rowing along a Long Island creek in 1984, landscape historian Griswold came upon a stand of oversize boxwoods (obviously hundreds of years old) and discovered Sylvester Manor, the house hidden behind the leaves. Visiting the house, owned by the same family for 11 generations, she was both delighted when shown the 1666 charter for the land and shocked when the owner nonchalantly mentioned the slave staircase. Returning in 1997 to the house she couldn’t forget with a team of archaeologists in tow, then traveling as far as West Africa, Griswold learned the history of the house and its owners, which she uses here to discuss more broadly the issue of slavery in the North. So much history is trampled ground, but this is both fresh and urgent material.

Shriver, Lionel. Big Brother. Harper: HarperCollins. Jun. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780061458576. $26.99. lrg. prnt. LITERARY FICTION
Pandora is having trouble with husband Fletcher, a master carpenter who’s become a rigid health nut and rejects her fabulous cooking. Then her brother Edison arrives, having gained hundreds of pounds. He promptly wreaks havoc, cooking gargantuan meals, destroying some of Fletcher’s work, and encouraging Pandora’s stepson to drop out of high school. When Fletcher tells Pandora that she must choose between him and Edison, she opts for her brother, whom she feels she must save from eating himself to death. The author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, so good at tackling social issues within the context of family, should handle the national obesity epidemic with aplomb. With a 50,000-copy first printing—not as big as might be expected, perhaps because her recent The New Republic, a resurrected novel, didn’t entirely work, but I trust her talent.

Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. Viking. Jun. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780670025961. $25.95. MEMOIR
Author of the award-winning River of Shadows, which won both a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Mark Lynton History Prize, Solnit writes affectingly about the human landscape. Here she shows how we connect imaginatively, using personal story, fairytale, and intriguing accounts like those of Arctic explorers or Che Guevara’s time among the lepers to clarify her arguments. The result, then, is a study of storytelling as an exercise in empathy. Smart readers shouldn’t miss.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.