A Little History of the World, Illustrated Edition by E.H. Gombrich; Yale University Press, 304 pages ($29.95).

First published in German in 1935, this is an enthralling piece of storytelling, as though a marvelously learned grandpa were telling a beloved grandchild the story of humanity, from the Stone Age to the First World War. Informative and entertaining, it is an education for readers of all ages. Gombrich was only 26 years old when a Viennese publishing acquaintance asked him to write a history for children. He finished it in six weeks, but returned to the task in the early 1990s, translating the book into English and was nearly finished with the update when he died in 2001 at 92. That English translation was published to critical acclaim in 2005. This handsome new edition includes freshly drawn maps and a revised preface by Gombrich's granddaughter, Leonie. The vivid prose and conversational style, using British spellings and slang, sweep the reader along, with a lively narrative and illuminating asides that truly make history come to life.

On ancient Rome, "You mustn't imagine that emperors did nothing but sit in amphitheaters or that they were all layabouts and raving lunatics like Nero."

From the chapter describing life at the time of Charlemagne: "The neighbors thought themselves lucky if their enemies were slaughtered, and it didn't occur to them that their turn might be next")

And in general: "The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again."

The belated final chapter "Looking Back" acknowledges the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust and the new threat posed by the Nuclear Age.

-- Jean Westmoore


Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down by Robert Fitzpatrick with Jon Land; Forge Books, 336 pages ($14.99)

Retired FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick tells his compelling story of trying to bring Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger to justice in "Betrayal," written with Jon Land.

When Fitzpatrick transferred to Boston in the early 1980s with orders to "clean up the mess," he asked to meet Bulger, a prized informant. Fitzpatrick was shocked to discover Bulger acting like he was in charge. He tried to shut down Bulger's FBI informant status and have him arrested for murder, but Bulger managed to stay one step ahead.

Bulger went into hiding in 1994. He was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for years until he was arrested last June in Santa Monica, Calif.

This first-person account does a fantastic job of juggling the names and facts into a compelling narrative.

-- Associated Press


Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt; Ecco, 160 pages ($13.99 paperback)

A year after his only daughter died at age 38 of an asymptomatic heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt wrote an essay in the New Yorker titled, "Making Toast." He described how he and his wife moved into Amy's house to help their son-in-law care for the couple's three small children, and how the mundane activities of child-rearing provided a measure of solace for his inconsolable grief.

What Rosenblatt has discovered in the more than 2 1/2 years since his daughter's death is that just getting on with life hasn't worked. "What I failed to calculate is the pain that increases even as one gets on with it," he writes.

Rosenblatt has taken up kayaking, spending hours exploring the shoreline and eddies of the inlet near his other home in Quogue, a resort town on the south shore of Long Island.

The book reads as an exploration of his eddying consciousness as he sets out one morning on Penniman Creek while the rest of the family is asleep. He thinks about his high-flying career as a journalist, when he traveled the world writing about other people's sadness. He meditates on the nature of water, wildlife and boats; recalls sorrowful passages of literature and poetry; and recounts conversations with a therapist friend trying to lift him out of his depression. Eventually, he paddles his way toward a resolution of his anguish, a perspective that offers some peace of mind.

-- Associated Press


Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel; Putnam, 320 pages ($25.95)

The aptly named "Lunatics" delivers exactly what one would expect from two award-winning humorists: an outrageously funny, irreverent, over-the-top comic mystery that has no boundaries.

Philip Horkman and Jeffrey A. Peckerman are husbands, fathers and businessmen living the good life in New Jersey. Philip owns a pet store called the Wine Shop. Jeffrey is a forensic plumber who has testified in several high-profile murder cases involving toilets. Philip and Jeffrey are also lunatics who meet on the soccer field. After soccer coach Philip calls Jeffrey's daughter "offside," a feud begins that escalates into international incidents.

Following a crash on the George Washington Bridge, they are labeled terrorists and, soon after, branded perverts following an encounter with a bear and a gang of thugs.

"Lunatics" works because the authors never lose their core mission -- to deliver a scatological, silly and bizarre comic romp. "Lunatics" has no hidden message, no issue to its plot and certainly no elegance -- all of which works to its advantage.

-- McClatchy Newspapers