Friday, February 27, 2009

'How We Decide' by Jonah Lehrer

'How We Decide' by Jonah Lehrer

Reviewed By Gordon Marino
LA Times

Honey Nut Cheerios or regular Cheerios. The Caribbean or Hawaii. To be human is to be endlessly jostled by choice. Decisions are earnest business. How should we make them?

Philosophers such as Plato and Descartes thought it best if pure reason decided everything. The heirs of Socrates pictured the passions as intoxicants interfering with our ability to think clearly. It was not until Soren Kierkegaard that some philosophers acknowledged that there is a cognitive dimension to emotion, and later, that reason and emotion may not be entirely separate agencies. In his latest offering, "How We Decide," Jonah Lehrer explores the nexus of thought and feeling in the decision-making process.

Lehrer begins by debunking the notion that we should all make our decisions like hyper-rational Mr. Spock. Lehrer, who also wrote "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," observes that perfectly intelligent people become virtually unable to make the most trivial decisions when their capacity for feelings are flattened as a result of brain disease or trauma. This is no surprise. Emotions inject our mental representations with direction and intensity.

Lehrer maintains that there are many cases in which the unfeeling intellect is simply doltish. Pondering the split-second judgments of quarterbacks, pilots and firefighters, Lehrer shows that if conscious reason were all we had, it would be impossible to make solid nanosecond decisions.

Lehrer recounts one of the book's riveting stories. In the heat of the Persian Gulf War, Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Riley was manning a shipboard radar station when he picked up a blip showing something heading toward the Missouri. The projectile had the profile of both an incoming coalition A-6 aircraft and an enemy Silkworm missile. Riley had no criteria for deciding between the two and was tortuously suspended between the possibilities of allowing a strike and blasting his brothers-in-arms out of the sky. But, Riley said, "There was something strange about this radar blip. It didn't feel like an A-6."

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

'Cutting for Stone' by Abraham Verghese

'Cutting for Stone' by Abraham Verghese

Reviewed By Art Winslow
Chicago Tribune

The classical Hippocratic oath includes the avowal that "I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work." This, assumedly, is the allusion the physician and writer Abraham Verghese had in mind when titling his first novel "Cutting for Stone." Four of his principal characters—a father who abandoned his twin sons, the twins themselves and the man who became their surrogate father—make the life choice to become surgeons.

There are questions of bravery and ethics, and betrayal and forgiveness as well, bound up in this enterprise, which as Verghese twists the tale is partly one of Indian and Ethiopian diaspora. His narrator, a trauma surgeon named Marion Stone, was born a premature twin weighing 3 pounds and had to be cut from his conjoined brother, Shiva, at their birth in a hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Marion, now 50, is eager to relate his brother's story—he used to consider them a single being, ShivaMarion—which requires that he relate his own story, and that of their parents as well. Marion's life brought him from Africa to exile in America, and then back to Africa, a path which leaves him claiming he is "proof that geography is destiny," although much of "Cutting for Stone" can be read as illustrating the opposite.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'Miles From Nowhere' By Nami Mun

'Miles From Nowhere' By Nami Mun

Reviewed by Renee Graham
Boston Globe

Vivid and mournful, "Miles From Nowhere" follows five agonizing years in the life of Joon, a Korean teenager who slides onto society's jagged edges after her family disintegrates. Hers is an emotionally upending story in which author Nami Mun unflinchingly details the hardships that inflict Joon, as well as the shattered souls who drift in and out of her misspent adolescence.

The book is set in 1980s New York, when Times Square was more a festering brothel than a chain-store theme park for Sun Belt tourists, more akin to the grime of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" than the candy-colored martinis of "Sex and the City." Yet for Joon, who immigrated from South Korea to the Bronx with her parents, it seems preferable to her tumultuous home. When her father, a drunk and a philanderer, abandons his family, Joon's mother loses her fragile sanity. On the night Joon's father leaves, her mother sets his belongings ablaze in the backyard.

Joon eventually leaves as well. She's only 13, and befitting someone her age, she's more focused on what she's running from than what she's running to. She's the kind of girl willing to do what other people want simply because it's easier than offering an objection. Life rolls over Joon, leaving her stunned and shredded. She knows the years will make her too old too fast, and there's little she can do to prevent it.

At first, Joon, who narrates the story, winds up in a shelter where she meets Knowledge, all street savvy and Bronx hard. While Joon is passive, Knowledge lives for action, and is a tangle of contradictions. Knowledge breaks into her family's home to steal a Christmas tree, cursing them even as she drops tinsel and ornaments, yet she chases down a thief who swipes a stranger's wallet. Later, she defies her boyfriend's order to rob a bank when she discovers, upon reaching the teller's window, that he has misspelled "money" as "monie" in the stickup note.

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Christopher Nolan, Irish Author, Dies at 43

By William Grimes
New York Times

Christopher Nolan, an Irish writer who, mute and quadriplegic since birth, produced a highly praised volume of verse and short stories at 15 and went on to publish a prize-winning autobiography, “Under the Eye of the Clock,” died Friday in Dublin. He was 43 and lived in Sutton, near Dublin.

Christopher Nolan in 1988 with his autobiography. It won the prestigious Whitbread Prize and was followed by a novel.

His death was confirmed by a condolence message from the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. His family told the Irish and British press that he died after food became trapped in his airway.

Oxygen deprivation during a difficult delivery left Mr. Nolan physically helpless, able to communicate with family members only through eye movements. At 11, supplied with a new drug to relax his neck muscles, he began writing with a “unicorn stick” strapped to his forehead, pecking a letter at a time on a typewriter as his mother held his chin with her hands.

The brain that one doctor had predicted would remain infantile turned out to contain a distinctive literary voice awaiting release.

“My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap,” he told The Observer of London in 1987. “Images gunfire across my consciousness and while trying to discipline them I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind’s expanse.”

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

'Death By Leisure: A Cautionary Tale' By Chris Ayres

'Death By Leisure: A Cautionary Tale' By Chris Ayres

Reviewed By Janet Maslin
New York Times

When Chris Ayres took his date to a Golden Globes party at the home of a former studio head, she had read about the place ahead of time. “If you push a button in the living room, a 20-foot movie screen drops from the ceiling, speakers rise from the floor and the bookshelf sinks down behind you to make way for a projectionist,” she said.

“If you push a button in my living room, the lights come on,” Mr. Ayres replied. “It’s incredible. I’ll show you sometime.”

Mr. Ayres was then Hollywood correspondent for The Times of London. And he found his life in California to be fiscally confusing. He had grown up in Wooler, a Northumberland village two hours south of Edinburgh, with a father whose proudest achievement was being middle class.

But he had relatives who sent him dollar bills as birthday gifts, and the idea of high-rolling American life fueled his imagination. One of the first words little Chris could say was “Lamborghini.”

He had done a brief but memorable nine-day journalistic stint in Iraq (the basis for his first book, “War Reporting for Cowards”) before California beckoned. Mr. Ayres moved there and took to his new beat.

“It is my job to ensure that the celebrity gossip is put into the correct sociopolitical context and recounted with the appropriate literary metaphors and allusions to Greek mythology,” he explains at the start of “Death by Leisure,” his book about time spent partly in the California trenches — and partly in the Hollywood Hills. This book is a comedic account of how California lured him into living large and introduced him to his inner Big Spender.

Fast and funny, “Death by Leisure” has the high spirits of a chick book, because its author is interested in chick-lit things: dates, celebrities, vanity and shopping. But it is also a tale of real woe. Even while abusing his American Express card and taking out a suicidal mortgage from a now-defunct company (his fictionalized “home loan specialist” works for “the You-Bet-You-Can Mortgage Corporation” — “Dealing in dreams since 2002!” ), Mr. Ayres kept on kidding himself and running up debts. He did that even though he anticipated what would happen to the California housing bubble, the dollar and the weather.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'Maimonides' By Joel L. Kraemer

'Maimonides: The Life and World
of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds' By Joel L. Kraemer

Reviewed by Robert J. Dobie
Philadelphia Inquirer

In 1896, more than 200,000 religious books, manuscripts, and personal letters were found in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Among the most important were writings of a man considered to be the greatest Jewish philosopher, theologian, legal expert and physician of the Middle Ages (some would say of all time), Moses ben Maimon, known to the West as Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).

Why would this medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian interest us today? This is the question Joel L. Kraemer's new biography aims to answer. In fact, Maimonides' thought speaks to our own day, which cries out for thoughtful approaches to the complex and delicate relations between secular science/philosophy and revealed religion. Maimonides' work should serve scholars today, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, even secular, as both a model and an inspiration.

Born around 1138 in what was then Moorish Spain, Maimonides grew up in a thoroughly Islamic and Arabized milieu. He had a deep knowledge of Arabic poetry, even penning his major works in the language, rather than in Hebrew. An even stronger influence was that of the great Muslim philosophers, scientists and theologians. He set out to master logic, mathematics, astronomy, and Aristotelian philosophy.

As Kraemer carefully notes, while Maimonides took much from Islamic society, he was even more concerned with preserving and enriching a unique Jewish identity and philosophical/theological perspective. His family was forced by political changes to emigrate to Egypt, where they could live openly as Jews, despite continued pressure to convert to Islam. Maimonides made it his lifelong project to demonstrate the inherent rationality of Judaism, both as a system containing the highest truths about reality and as a guide to human fulfillment and perfection.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America' by Louis Adamic

'Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America' by Louis Adamic

Reviewed By Richard Rayner, LA Times

Louis Adamic is the forgotten Boswell of early Los Angeles, perhaps the first writer to tune himself into the then-youthful city and report back. Born in Slovenia in either 1898 or 1899 (records differ), he passed through Ellis Island in 1913 and served in the U.S. Army during World War I before settling in San Pedro where, through most of the 1920s, he worked as a watchman in the office of the harbor pilot. Great ocean liners passed in front of his window, and at dusk, the wireless stations on battleships sent forth flashes of light.

It's a striking picture, evoked by Carey McWilliams, who noted that his friend Adamic was always more at home in San Pedro than in the "fleshpots of Los Angeles," then in the midst of a crazy, oil-driven boom. Yet it was Los Angeles that inspired Adamic. "He thrived on Los Angeles. He reveled in its freaks, fakirs, and frauds," McWilliams wrote.

Adamic became not only a historian and sociologist of the city, but its prophet too. It was he who first called it an "enormous village" and got at the soul of what he thought of as a bad place, "full of old dying people, and young people who were born old of tired pioneer parents, victims of America -- full of curious wild and poisonous growths, decadent religions and cults and fake science, and wildcat business enterprises, which, with their aim for quick profits, are doomed to collapse and drag down multitudes of people."

Adamic gathered his impressions in "Laughing in the Jungle," a memoir published in 1932. It was his second important book. The first, "Dynamite," appeared the previous year and was revised in 1935. This latter version has just been reissued, with a foreword by labor historian Jon Bekken.

"Dynamite" -- subtitled "The Story of Class Violence in America" -- had a troubled route to publication. Adamic originally intended to tell the story of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times, an act of terrorism that killed more than 20 people. Two brothers, James and John McNamara, were found guilty, and Adamic saw in this drama a microcosm of the social and economic forces that in the early 20th century brought Los Angeles, and parts of the country at large, to the brink of socialism and revolution. He unearthed a great stack of material, reconstructed the saga detail by detail -- and then failed to publish all his findings.

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'The Gamble' by Thomas E. Ricks

'The Gamble' by Thomas E. Ricks

Reviewed By Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times

Thomas E. Ricks’s devastating 2006 book, “Fiasco,” provided a lucid, tough-minded assessment of the Iraq war, brilliantly summing up the political and military mistakes that had brought the United States, after more than three years of occupation, to a terrible tipping point there. Drawing upon the author’s reporting on the ground in Iraq and his many sources within the uniformed military, “Fiasco” chronicled how the United States “went to war in Iraq with scant solid international support and on the basis of incorrect information,” and how flawed assumptions, drastic planning failures and plain old-fashioned hubris led to a “derelict occupation” that fueled a burgeoning insurgency.

In his equally powerful and illuminating new book, “The Gamble,” Mr. Ricks, who covered the military for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, takes up the story where he left off in “Fiasco.” This volume recounts how Iraq came close to unraveling in 2006, how the Bush administration finally conceded it was off course, and how a new set of commanders — headed by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno — began putting a radically different strategy in place.

That strategy, often referred to as the surge, not only involved the addition of some 30,000 troops but also, more important, featured new counterinsurgency tactics (which made the protection of Iraqi civilians a priority) and a new realpolitik approach to dealing with insurgents.

Mr. Ricks writes as both an analyst and a reporter with lots of real-time access to the chain of command, and his book’s narrative is animated by closely observed descriptions of how the surge worked on the ground, by a savvy knowledge of internal Pentagon politics, and by a keen understanding of the Iraq war’s long-term fallout on already strained American forces.

While Mr. Ricks praises General Petraeus’s success in helping the military regain the strategic initiative in Iraq as an “extraordinary achievement” — reducing violence and reviving “American prospects in the war” — he also reminds us that the surge was meant to “create a breathing space that would then enable Iraqi politicians to find a way forward,” and that that outcome is still unclear. “The best grade” the surge campaign can be given, he says, “is a solid incomplete.”

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Patrick Swayze signs book deal

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

Actor Patrick Swayze, who has been fighting stage-four pancreatic cancer for the past year, has signed a deal to write his life story.

The memoir, to be written with his wife, Lisa Niemi, will be published this fall by Atria Books.

The announcement was made Thursday by Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher of Atria.

The memoir, still untitled, will give an intimate account of the star's life, including his battle with cancer.

"With everything I've been fortunate enough to do in my life, and covering such a wide range of diverse subject matters, I'm told that my story has been inspirational to people," Swayze, the 56-year-old star of Dirty Dancing and the A&E series The Beast, said in a statement. "I will write from my heart about these experiences and aside from the sheer pleasure of doing it, if people happen to garner inspiration from it, or incentive, or find a new way to love, it would be wonderful."

Top Shelf: Recommendations of recent books from the staffs of Bay Area independent bookstores

Found at the San Francisco Chronicle

This week's list is from Copperfield's Books, 138 N. Main St., Sebastopol. (707) 823-2618.


The Risk of Infidelity Index, by Christopher G. Moore: Think Dashiell Hammett in Bangkok. A hard-boiled, street-smart, often hilarious pursuit of a double murderer. In paperback.

White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga: Dark, humorous and real. This novel lets us see that morality and money don't solve every problem, but decency can still be found in a corrupt world. In paperback.

Hotel de Dream, by Edmund White: This story within a story finds Stephen Crane dictating his final work to his wife, Cora. What emerges is a strange, dreamlike novel of a boy prostitute in 1890s New York and the married man who ruins his own life to find love. In paperback.

People of the Whale
, by Linda Hogan: Hogan employs just the right touch of spiritualism in this engrossing tale of a world that once was and still might be.

Tales From Outer Suburbia
(ages 10 & up), by Shaun Tan: A thought-provoking book about everyday happenings that morph into remarkable and imaginative stories for adults and children.


The Killing of Major Denis Mahon, by Peter Duffy: Duffy's storytelling skills render vividly the harsh realities and the alternately heartbreaking and appalling politics of the Irish Famine. In paperback.

A Place of My Own, by Michael Pollan: You might have missed this book when it came out in 1997, but this reissue is one to include in your library. Pollan is inspired to build a room of his own with his own hands. In paperback.

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, by Richard Grant: Grant travels on horseback through Mexico's Sierra Madre, one of the largest drug-producing regions in the world, and encounters a rugged landscape where the mythical old Mexico meets the new. In paperback.

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman: A no-nonsense rundown on how government policy, big-business marketing and global economics influence what we choose to put on the table. Bittman offers recipes and straightforward, budget-conscious advice that will help shrink your carbon footprint - and your waistline.

Three Cups of Tea (Young Readers Edition), by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: This remarkable story of how Mortenson built 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is now accessible to young readers. In paperback.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

'The Daily Coyote' By Shreve Stockton

'The Daily Coyote' By Shreve Stockton

Reviewed By Susan Salter Reynolds
Miami Herald

A few years ago Shreve Stockton drove across the country on her Vespa to start a new life in New York after two years in San Francisco (oh, to be young and footloose!). On the way, she passed through Wyoming and fell in love with the landscape, especially the Bighorn Mountains. When New York City didn't click, Shreve lit out for the territory, landing in the tiny Wyoming town of Ten Sleep.

Soon, she met a rancher who offered her a rustic cabin on his property, Shreve's dream cabin (also Shreve's dream rancher -- oh, to be young and footloose!). One day the rancher, who also worked as a trapper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture killing coyotes, brought home a coyote cub. Reluctantly, Shreve took in the cub, fed him from a bottle, let him sleep in her bed, named him Charlie and gave him the run of the cabin and her life.

Shreve started a blog, ''The Daily Coyote,'' which became an overnight sensation in the nature-starved Web world. In its prime, the site received more than a million hits a month, some of it judgmental. In the 18 years he'd had his job trapping and killing coyotes, Mike the rancher told Shreve, nothing like the impulse to save this cub had ever come over him. The Daily Coyote is an insight into the boundaries between wild animals and humans.

''I had made it a point not to own him,'' Shreve wrote after Charlie inexplicably bit her one day, ``and to coexist without ever being the boss of him.''

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

'The Yankee Years' by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

'The Yankee Years'
By Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

Review By David Ulin
LA Times

Last week, as the controversy over Joe Torre and Tom Verducci's "The Yankee Years" was ratcheting up, I got an e-mail from my brother, who, like me, is a lifelong New York Yankees fan. "As I understand it," he wrote, "Torre is saying NYY is a tough place to work, very 'What have you done for me lately?' and if your name is not Piniella or Jeter, everyone is out to get you. No news there."

This is the reality for the Yankee faithful and has been since George Steinbrenner took control of the team in 1973. As for Torre's revelations that Alex Rodriguez is high-maintenance (No!) or that General Manager Brian Cashman failed to stand by him after the 2007 season . . . tell me something I don't know.

As it turns out, that's precisely what "The Yankee Years" does, providing an unexpectedly thoughtful, even nuanced, history not only of Torre's 12 years as manager of the Yankees but of Major League Baseball during that time. It's a period ripe for just this sort of overview: the steroid era, the rise of moneyball.

When Torre took over the Yankees in 1996, baseball was less than two years removed from the catastrophic strike that stopped the 1994 season, forcing the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.

By 2007, when he left the team after losing the American League division series to the Cleveland Indians, baseball was huge business despite the exposure of some of its biggest stars ( Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds) as alleged cheaters, transformed by a new generation of executives who made decisions based on advanced statistical analyses.

On the surface, none of this appears to have much to do with the Yankees: Although Clemens and others on the 2000 team have been embroiled in the steroids scandal, the team never had an ingrown culture of cheating, while the new age, numbers-crunching style of management demands a patience Steinbrenner lacks.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

'Reclaiming Paris' By Fabiola Santiago

'Reclaiming Paris' By Fabiola Santiago

Reviewed by Johnny Diaz
Found at the Boston Globe

Marisol is a poet and a museum historian. She's also a lover of perfumes and men. All these interests intertwine and shape her life as she leaves her native Cuba and follows her heart to Miami, Iowa, Spain, and France.

Marisol, the first-person narrator of Miami Herald writer Fabiola Santiago's debut novel, "Reclaiming Paris," searches for many things. She looks for a man who will fill the emotional spaces in her heart. She seeks to understand her complicated family's past. Most of all Marisol, whose name in Spanish means "the sea and the sun," wants to find herself.

At first sight, Santiago's novel might look like another light romantic tale, but a closer examination reveals a rich spiritual journey of self-discovery. Marisol tries to understand her dual identity as a Cuban and an American.

Bolstering the novel are the subtle references to historical immigration issues that Santiago laces into the narrative. She also pulls the reader along by initially telling only part of the story about Marisol's father's death, a fatal encounter with Castro's soldiers that led her grandmother to flee Cuba with her on a Freedom Fight in 1969 rather than face further repercussions from the regime.

With each milestone in her life, Marisol ushers in a new perfume and a new man. Naturally, the book opens with an ode to both. "Men are like perfumes," Marisol says. "In an instant, with nothing but a whiff of judgment, I either love them or discard them."

In the opening pages, Marisol's perfume is Pleasures, and she associates it with an affluent, married Miami cardiologist with whom she has fallen madly in love. As she ruminates about their dead-end relationship, the book briefly rewinds into Marisol's childhood and then flashes forward to her string of lovers and accompanying fragrances.

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'The Big Rich' By Bryan Burrough

'The Big Rich' By Bryan Burrough

Reviewed by Janet Maslin
New York Times

The title of “The Big Rich,” Bryan Burrough’s new book about Texas oil money, serves as shorthand. “Big” turns out to mean extravagantly vulgar; it means having the kind of taste that prompted Frank Lloyd Wright, referring to what was said to be Houston’s most fabulous hotel in 1949, to remark that he had always wondered what the inside of a jukebox looked like. “Rich” signals that vast fortunes don’t always last, and that a man who once owned millions of acres of oilfields and thousands of head of cattle could go so broke that even his water cooler and lawnmowers would wind up confiscated. Voyeurism and schadenfreude are the forces that drive this book.

Mr. Burrough, the business-savvy Vanity Fair correspondent, grew up in Texas, perhaps watching “Dallas.” But he didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the Texas that this book tries to summon. And the oil barons about whom he writes, ostentatious as they were, had little interest in leaving behind records of their financial dealings or domestic extravagances. So “The Big Rich” gets much of its information secondhand. It makes far too ready use of phrases like “What happened next has never been explained.”

Describing this account as “an engineered history,” Mr. Burrough proceeds to engineer it into a stock, familiar format. He chooses four tycoons out of the many who struck it rich during the boom years from 1930 to ’35. “If Texas had a Mount Rushmore, their faces would be on it,” he writes of Clint Murchison Sr., Roy Cullen, Sid Richardson and H. L. Hunt, caricaturing these figures as “a good ol’ boy,” “a scold,” “a genius” and “a bigamist.”

Since their stories do not automatically interlock, Mr. Burrough relies on metronomic crosscutting to shape his narrative. This structure is arbitrary and feels that way. And the book’s most memorable oilman, Glenn McCarthy, is a whole other breed of showoff, a man who wound up as a character in “Giant” and really did leave a tabloid trail. Two McCarthys, Glenn and Senator Joseph, are compass points in the Texas of “The Big Rich,” but they don’t fit into Mr. Burrough’s central constellation. “The Big Rich” is also engineered into the standard arc of a success story. So it begins with 100 long, dusty pages about the discovery of oil in different parts of the region. (This book, illustrated with too few photographs to do its characters justice, desperately needed a map of oil fields.) At this early stage of the game Mr. Burrough’s main job is to find different ways to describe what it was like when a gusher came in.

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