June 26, 2008


A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time. By Jim Noles. Da Capo. $25.

The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle…at Any Age. By Rebecca Booth, M.D. Da Capo. $24.

      Explore the world? Explore yourself? You can do both with these books. A Pocketful of History uses the quarters that almost everyone in the U.S. has in his or her pocket or purse – the state-themed ones that have been issued since 1999 – to tell a story that Jim Noles says is “not so much about who we are or what we are but instead [is] a polyglot reflection on how we think of ourselves.” Whether these quarters can bear the weight of a more-than-300-page discussion is by no means clear; this is a book that you should pick up and look through before deciding whether to buy it. What Noles, an Alabama attorney who says he is not a coin collector, has done is to take each quarter’s design and explain what it means and, in most cases, how and why it was chosen. The result is an extended guide to decision-making processes and design choices that range from the obvious to the rather peculiar. West Virginia, for example, does not celebrate its creation through a split-up of Virginia during the Civil War, but instead shows the impressive New River Gorge Bridge – whose history dates back only to 1977. Hawaii, the last state to be admitted to the United States, shows (on a coin not yet available) the likeness of its famous King Kamehameha, who died 140 years before Hawaii joined the Union. Wisconsin showcases its primary agricultural products – milk, cheese and corn – but Idaho, whose name is nearly synonymous with potatoes, shows a peregrine falcon. Anyone who has been collecting the 50 state quarters (which will be augmented by quarters from the District of Columbia and several territories – none of them discussed by Noles) and who wants a guidebook to go along with the coin set should at least consider A Pocketful of History. But it is unlikely to be the type of book to which readers will return again and again while showing off their collections of coins that are, after all, intentionally quite commonplace.

      The Venus Week
is a much more personal book, in which obstetrician-gynecologist Rebecca Booth discusses a phenomenon that many women have noticed in their daily lives: there is about one week per month during which most women look and feel better than at any other time that month. Booth explains that this is the time – the week before ovulation – when both estrogen and testosterone production peaks, so women feel their best and also feel the strongest sexual desire. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: the most likely time for conception coincides with the time when women feel physically best and are most likely to invite sexual attention. The “Venus Zenith,” according to Booth, occurs during a woman’s 20s and 30s – and again this makes sense, since those are the prime reproductive years. But what Booth does in The Venus Week is more than analysis, and a reader’s reaction to that “more” will determine whether the book is highly useful or just another self-help book based on a somewhat unusual premise. Booth gives several ways to identify The Venus Week – for instance, by keeping a journal of your menstrual cycle, checking basal body temperature and using an ovulation-predictor kit (widely available at drugstores). She advises women to become familiar with the times they have clearer skin, fuller and softer hair, more-flexible muscles, fewer food cravings, and greater energy and focus. To make this feel-good time last as long as possible and produce the greatest improvement in how a woman looks and feels all month, Booth offers a variety of prescriptions, from regular exercise (she specifies at least 22 minutes a day) to eating breakfast daily to eliminating trans fats, taking in more calcium and vitamin D, and adding some cinnamon to foods or beverages. She also offers relaxation techniques. None of her recommendations is at all unusual, and all have value. They may even accomplish their stated purpose of helping women feel less “at the mercy” of their hormones and more in control of their bodies. If Booth’s “Venus Week Plan” encourages some women to eat better and improve their lifestyles, that is just fine. But other women will find essentially the same advice in many other places – books, magazines, newspapers articles and health-oriented Web sites. The Venus Week simply offers a framework to get women to behave in more healthful ways. If this rationale isn’t for you, there are plenty of others that are equally good and that you may find more appealing.

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