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Books in brief

>POLITICS

A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East -- From the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Patrick Tyler, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30)

Patrick Tyler is a veteran foreign and Washington correspondent who more recently has applied his formidable reporting skills and narrative gifts to diplomatic history. His latest effort, "A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East -- From the Cold War to the War on Terror," couldn't be more timely.

Tyler's strikingly readable new history argues that President Obama inherits a decidedly mixed, though mainly unhappy, diplomatic legacy. The author's impressive research combines a careful combing of archival sources and memoirs in multiple languages, as well as wide-ranging original research.

-- Los Angeles Times

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>CHILDREN'S

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books/Harry N. Abrams Inc., $12.95. 217 pages.

Alternately hilarious and painful, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw" explores exactly what it's like to be an average kid in middle school, at least through the eyes of self-centered, clueless Greg Heffley, who would rather end up wearing his old Wonder Woman Underoos than do his laundry and who finds endless creative ways to sabotage his Dad's plans to toughen him up with sports, Boy Scouts, or even a military academy. This is the third book in a best-selling series that began as an online cartoon, and the diary format features hilarious black and white cartoons and the "print" font and lined paper of an actual diary. There's pathos and humor as Greg lurches from one embarrassing situation to another, surviving with a strength that can only come from complete cluelessness. Greg decides to send out insulting valentines to his classmates, cleverly sending one to himself so he won't be found out. There's a hilarious description of a Valentine dance, held during the school day for P.E. credit so that all are forced to dance, inspiring Greg to create a "step/pause/step" that would "tecnhically qualify as dancing" as he tries to make his move on a girl he has a crush on. The wit is spot on. More "Wimpy Kid" books are promised, and a movie is in the works.

-- Jean Westmoore

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FICTION

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant; Scribner ($14)

The weakest writing in Linda Grant's "The Clothes on Their Backs" comes in the very first paragraph. Vivien Kovacs, a grieving woman in her early 50s, passes a sad little shop that's going out of business. "Through the glass," she observes "the rails on which the clothes hung, half-abandoned, as if the dresses and coats, blouses and sweaters had fled in the night, vanished down the street, flapping their empty arms."

That first overwrought metaphor, however, is also the last. By the bottom of the page, with Vivien exchanging tart, politely hostile banter with the shopkeeper, a figure from her past, the narrative reorients itself to character, story and tight, lively prose, and never loses its way again. No wonder it was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

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>NONFICTION

America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis; Simon & Schuster ($26)

From my seat as a newspaper reporter covering the courts, it often seems that few violent crimes would be committed absent addictions.

Many times, I have seen a killer come to court looking healthier and sober after weeks in jail, and I can't help but wonder how much better off the defendant, the victim and we all would be if they'd found their way to sobriety sooner.

Although it's a subject that merits exploration, I was skeptical about another book about addiction. But New York Times magazine contributor and author Benoit Denizet-Lewis finds a fresh, provocative approach to the subject in "America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life."

For several years, he tracked men and women with a panoply of problems: heroin, alcohol, crystal meth and steroids, food, sex and pornography, crack, prescription drugs and gambling and shoplifting.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

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