December 09, 2010


Paying for College without Going Broke, 2011 Edition. By Kalman A. Chany with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Random House. $20.

The Battle of Nashville: General George H. Thomas & the Most Decisive Battle of the Civil War. By Benson Bobrick. Knopf. $19.99.

Why Dogs Eat Poop & Other Useless or Gross Information about the Animal Kingdom. By Francesca Gould and David Haviland. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. $12.95.

     Many seasonal gifts tend to be lighthearted, and gift books in particular seem mostly to be fiction that is easy to read, escapist or both. But if you are still casting about for presents for people who have more serious interests or concerns, there are some excellent new books out there that will make fine gifts for the right sort of person. Anyone getting ready to send a child to college – or go to college himself or herself – will benefit from the new 2011 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke (and what a great title that is). As always, Kalman Chany – an independent counselor on college financial aid since 1982 – approaches college financing as a kind of chess game. He and coauthor Geoff Martz indicate that it is not enough to follow the rules – you have to follow them creatively enough to maximize your chance of obtaining the financing you need. And you can get financing, the authors argue, even if your household income is in the $200,000 range. The trick (and it is not really a trick but a matter of doing good, solid research) involves knowing what to do and what not to do to maximize aid; how to find the best loans; how to get colleges to provide more aid if the initial offer is not enough; when special savings accounts such as 529s and Coverdells make sense and when they do not (because of tax implications and also because of the way the money in certain accounts is handled from an aid standpoint); and even what colleges to choose so as to get more aid (if you significantly exceed a school’s typical admission criteria, your value to the school goes up and your aid package should, too). Paying for College without Going Broke is more than a how-to guide – it is also a kit, containing sample forms (including the all-important FAFSA from the federal government) and specific instructions on the best way to fill the forms out. Not much changes from year to year in Paying for College without Going Broke (although the 2011 edition does feature an introduction by former President Bill Clinton, who uses it rather immodestly to score points about the education-related accomplishments of his administration). But not much has to change, since the book is so carefully crafted in the first place. Where updates are appropriate (for instance, in the expected cost of college in the coming academic year), they are provided in matter-of-fact fashion. Where the advice has stood the test of time, it is retained – and anyone needing to finance college in the coming year will be grateful to have it.

     Young teenagers not quite ready to agonize over college choices, but interested in history at either the high-school or college level, will find the gift of The Battle of Nashville an engrossing one. The subtitle’s reference to this less-known battle as the “most decisive” of the Civil War may give readers pause, but historian Benson Bobrick makes a good case for the assertion. Bobrick’s focus is not only a less-known battle of the war but also one of its less-known military figures, General George H. Thomas. Thomas was a Virginian, like Robert E. Lee, but while Lee identified primarily with Virginia and would not take up arms against his state, Thomas believed the nation as a whole was paramount, and he therefore led forces for the North (although whether he was “the greatest general of the North,” as Bobrick asserts, is arguable). Hated by the South as a turncoat, mistrusted by many in the North because of his Virginia roots, Thomas nevertheless fought wholeheartedly for the Union cause – and his leadership reached its apex in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. Bobrick builds up to the battle with information on how the Civil War began, what it was about, who some of the important figures in it were, and what sorts of major battles had occurred before Nashville. This places the Nashville campaign clearly in context – while also giving Bobrick an opportunity to bring forth some unusual elements of it and of Thomas. Notably, the general “welcomed blacks into his army and was devoted to their training and care. Even though black soldiers had fought in a number of engagements before December 1864, it was Thomas alone who gave them their full dignity in battle and a major role in one of the decisive battles of the war.” After the smashing Union victory in Nashville, which Bobrick argues was the battle that made Lee’s surrender inevitable, Thomas was promoted and won other victories; after the war, he was military governor of five Southern states. But he remained relatively obscure, certainly compared with Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and several other Northern generals, and did not long survive the war, dying of an aneurysm in 1870. Bobrick’s story of Thomas and the crucial victory he engineered will be a fascinating one for serious young students of American history.

     If economic factors and 19th-century battles seem a bit too intense for holiday gift-giving – but if you are still looking for something nonfictional for someone who prefers reality to make-believe – you can always turn to Why Dogs Eat Poop & Other Useless or Gross Information about the Animal Kingdom. Like its predecessor volumes, Why You Shouldn’t Eat Your Boogers and Why Fish Fart, this new romp through peculiar and frequently gross facts is accurate and well researched, but decidedly not for all tastes. This is the place to turn if you want to know about vampire birds – that’s birds, not bats: a certain kind of finch drinks the blood of other birds. Here you will meet a type of caecilian (a wormlike amphibian) whose young get their first meal by eating their mother’s skin (the mother grows it back afterwards). There is information on veterinarians giving dogs medicines for depression (whether this is a canine or human oddity is up to readers to determine); on toads that exploded in Germany after an unusual attack on them by crows; on the coma-like state that a shark enters if turned on its back; on the bird that can kill its enemies by vomiting on them (a seabird called the fulmar); and on the creature that collects owl vomit (that would be the human being: the pellets that owls cough up after digesting their food have a variety of scientific uses). Why Dogs Eat Poop may be a trifle unappetizing for the holiday season (unless the recipient is trying to avoid overeating), but for anyone interested in some of the odder aspects of the animal kingdom, it could be a very tasty gift indeed.

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