"The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More"

By Bruce Feiler

Bruce Feiler, who has a full plate as a successful writer and dad of two, decided to make improving family life his business in his new book, "The Secrets of Happy Families."

The scene at Feiler's house, with his working wife and now 8-year-old twin daughters, is similar to most families: active and stressful. Feiler's goal was to put out a playbook for happy families to make life more efficient, relaxed and fun.

But instead of seeking advice from traditional sources, he consulted people at the top of their game in business, technology, sports and the military about innovative ideas they take from the boardroom to the playroom.

He offers useful advice on everything from weekly allowances to road trip games to sex talks. The book is organized and easy to digest. It's broken down into sections on the importance of families adapting to change, communicating and taking time to play.

Each chapter takes on a new family challenge, including sharing meals, tackling difficult conversations, creating a more functional and comfortable home, and managing extended family.

In each chapter, Feiler test-drives the methods he presents on his own family. Not afraid to admit their failures, his stories are relatable and infused with humor and authenticity. The most compelling groundwork is when he visits several families to see theories put into action.

Some of the book's best advice is simple, yet routinely neglected by many families. Feiler says their weekly family meetings - modeled after sit-downs at many giant companies - became the "single most impactful idea they introduced since their kids were born." His family also created a mission statement to sum up their priorities, goals and dreams, and posted it in a visible spot at home.

The chapter heading on sports, titled "Shut Up and Cheer," says it all. Examining this country's obsession with kids' sports, Feiler discusses the importance of parents staying neutral and supportive.

Feiler's main point is to pay attention to family practices and customs, continue to discuss them and take proactive steps to make necessary changes when something's not working. It's up to every family to uncover its own secrets of what makes them thrive.

Brooke Lefferts, The Associated Press

"The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend"

By Glenn Frankel

A modest hit in theaters in 1956, "The Searchers" has grown in stature to become, for many, the greatest Western ever filmed and one of the most influential movies. Yet it's always been more, thematically and culturally, than just a John Wayne movie about finding a white girl abducted by Comanche Indians.

Glenn Frankel's book is a must-read for movie fans and anyone interested in mythmaking and the American West.

In 1836, Comanche Indians kidnapped 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker during a deadly raid on a white settlement in Texas. An uncle searched for her off and on for years. By the time Texas Rangers and others accidentally "rescued" her in 1860 during an attack on a Comanche camp, Cynthia Ann was a wife and mother. Her forced re-entry into white society -she was treated as if she were a pathetic oddity - was yet another tragic event in her life.

Using previously unpublished accounts and other archival material, Frankel notes that the facts surrounding her experience were twisted and molded, if not outright invented, to fit each storyteller's purpose. In Cynthia Ann's day, she was a heroine to some for surviving her captivity, to others merely a white savage. A century later, she was cast as a proto-feminist, the original tough Texas woman.

"The truth was less triumphalist and more poignant," Frankel writes. "Cynthia Ann was not the hardy survivor but rather the ultimate victim of the Texan-Comanche wars, abducted and traumatized by both sides."

American culture wasn't through with Cynthia Ann. Inspired to some degree by her saga, writer Alan LeMay focused his novel "The Searchers" not on the captive and her captors but on an uncle and adopted brother who try to find her. When LeMay sold the film rights, another mythmaker - director John Ford - went to work changing the story to fit his own vision as well as the needs of a director looking for a hit.

"The Searchers" was the ninth of the 14 major films in which Ford directed John Wayne. The actor owed his career to Ford - he plucked Wayne from B movie purgatory to star in "Stagecoach" (1939) when others wanted Gary Cooper - and Ford never let Wayne forget it. While making "The Searchers," Ford screamed at Hollywood's greatest cowboy, "When will you learn to ride a horse?"

Ford was surprisingly open to improvising. As Frankel relates, the famous closing shot of "The Searchers" - framed in a ranch house doorway - was just one instance in which Ford went with his gut instead of his script.

Frankel's excellent research and analysis and his fine writing raise the bar for the "making of" film book. His narrative details the life of a modern legend - in this case, a historical event that sparked a novel that led to a film, each step revealing a different aspect of how we tell our stories and why.

By Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press

"The Average American Marriage: A Novel"

By Chad Kultgen

If you are looking for profanity, "The Average American Marriage: A Novel" offers it in abundance. If you want a narrator's undying obsession with sex and frequent graphic depictions of it, you have found it. If it's an easy, entertaining, done-in-an-afternoon read you're in search of, here it is.

If, however, the title has fooled you and you're in search of a happy ending, turn away.

The latest offering from Chad Kultgen, who has made a name for himself as the leading purveyor of "lad lit," gives perhaps the grimmest view of marriage since "Revolutionary Road."

The narrator, who has graduated from his single life in Kultgen's debut, "The Average American Male," offers a glimpse of misery in every facet of his life. He despises his wife and her "hideously disfigured" anatomy, hates his job so much that he views elongated trips to the bathroom as the highlight of his day, and speaks with disdain of his children in a way reminiscent of Louis CK.

There is no cheering this man, who even views a day at Disneyland with his family as one of the worst of his life. The only escape from the malaise, for both the narrator and the reader, is the character's obsession with a college intern at his office, the main driving force in the plot and the thing that ultimately puts the future of a marriage in doubt.

Despite its dark view of life, and dialogue that often seems stilted, many readers, or men at least, will enjoy the ride. Think "50 Shades of Grey" for the 30-something male. It is crass, lewd and politically incorrect, but also mindlessly fun and engaging.

Read it on a plane or a carefree Sunday, just don't read it if you're thinking about walking down the aisle.

Matt Sedensky, The Associated Press

"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief"

By Lawrence Wright

Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright's new book about Scientology, its origins, its evolution and its believers, is a powerful piece of reportage. It is detailed, intense and at times shocking. But it's not merely an indictment of one of the world's newest faiths - Scientologists deny many parts of the book - it's also a reminder of the dangers of combining faith with fear, and the foolishness of choosing to believe anything blindly.

The book traces Scientology's history through a variety of characters, the most important being L. Ron Hubbard, the seafaring world explorer and prolific science fiction writer who founded the religion. Also explored in depth are the present leader of the church, David Miscavige, who is described as a violent autocrat; Tom Cruise, the religion's most famous adherent and prime example of Scientology's fixation on Hollywood; and Paul Haggis, the filmmaker who has become a prominent ex-Scientologist.

The book delves into Scientology's beliefs, from the existence 75 million years ago of Xenu, the tyrannical alien overlord of what was called the Galactic Confederacy, to the evils of the psychiatric profession, to the notion that human bodies are simply vessels for "thetans" - immortal soullike entities, some types of which need to be expelled through a (very expensive) process called auditing.

It goes on to describe how the church has evolved, amassing extraordinary wealth and numerous properties, as well as a foothold in Hollywood. It also describes the punishments that face Scientologists who, in ways big and small, deviate or question the faith, including assignment to manual labor in what appear to be re-education camps. And yet, the true believers stay of their own accord.

"Going Clear" is a carefully written account, detached and with little sense of outrage apparent from the author's point of view. Wright obviously understands that letting his findings speak for themselves is enough. If the church had cooperated more, perhaps even admitting a few excesses instead of issuing standard denials to every negative thing, the book might have been somewhat different.

As Wright points out, all faiths have elements that might seem absurd to outsiders, from virgin births to self-flagellation to the very belief in a god. The question is, as a member of a religion, are you free to leave, or is there compulsion to stay? Is it free faith or is it forced faith?

With Scientology, Wright documents that leaving is not only a psychologically difficult thing to do (for many believers it means the loss of contact with virtually all friends and family), but even at times a physically difficult thing, as teams are willing to track you down wherever you go to try to "persuade" you to return.

Nahal Toosi, The Associated Press