GIFTS THAT WON'T BREAK THE BANK
By Martin B. Deutsch
November 20, 2008 -- The year-end holidays are looming and just about everyone's thoughts are turning to the annual process of selecting gifts for families, friends and business associates.
It's a little different this time around, of course. We're facing an economic abyss and many people are downsizing their generosity in favor of more moderate expenditures. But it's the thought that counts. Isn't it?
One of the most thoughtful and appreciated of all gifts in any financial climate is a book, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, whether it's current, or published in recent years--or even many, many years ago.
It is in this light that I've come up with a suggested list of books that I can recommend without hesitation. In no particular order, here's my 2008 roster of recommended reading for holiday giving.
The Pity Of It All by Amos Elon is a history of the Jews and their influence in Germany from 1743 to January, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor. This 2002 examination of Jewish influence in various German principalities (which did not unite until 1870) also recounts the ebb and flow of German anti-Semitism. The conditions did not prevent a growing Jewish minority from expanding its influence on German culture, education, industry, philosophic thought--and even the military. Despite the ongoing restrictions, occasional violence and religious persecution, the Jews were probably more assimilated in Germany than in any other European nation. This was true until Hitler came to power, in fact.
Elon's book begins in 1743 because that's the year an impoverished youth named Moses Mendelsohn walked into the city of Berlin. He entered through the same gates that were used by cattle and cattle dealers, paying the same toll as the animals. His goal: Find roots and further his education. He would eventually become a major figure in philosophy and the father of a large family. (One of his grandsons was Felix Mendelsohn, the great composer.) Much of the family converted to one of the Christian religions, as did many of the German Jews during the nearly 200 years of this epic tome. It's gripping reading, emotional stuff, hard to put down.
Restless by William Boyd is a low-key thriller about an English mother and daughter, the former a former spy who has never stopped looking over her shoulder after her betrayal by her one-time mentor and lover. This 2006 volume has some intriguing twists and turns, interesting characters and a satisfying, if not far-fetched, ending. Boyd has also written some better books, including Brazzaville Beach, A Good Man In Africa, An Ice Cream War and A Blue Afternoon. He's also written a good collection of short stories.
Heyday by Kurt Andersen is a big, sprawling picturesque novel that moves from Paris and London to New York and California during the turbulent years of 1848 and 1849. We participate in everything from a revolution in Paris that topples the monarchy to the gold rush that brings thousands of would-be miners out West in search of wealth and adventure. The main character in this 2007 novel is a young Englishman caught up by chance in the violence in Paris. He ultimately forsakes his comfortable upper-class life in England for New York and then, Westward Ho! His American companions include a sometime actress, sometime prostitute; her pyromaniac brother just back from the Mexican War; a likable bon vivant who is a journalist, author and astronomer; and an assassin hell-bent on wreaking vengeance as the action progresses to the gold fields. We also meet, superficially, several historical figures in their historic context.
Snobbery, The American Version by Joseph Epstein is a lighthearted, entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of the phenomenon. All sorts of social phenomena are dissected in this 2002 work and comparisons are evoked between snobbery as practiced on both sides of the Atlantic. It seems that snobbery is easier to evoke in societies with a well-defined class system, but we do very well on this score without such guidelines on our side of the Big Pond.
A professor as Northwestern University in Chicago, Epstein published a delightful collection of short stories in 2003 entitled Fabulous Small Jews. I cannot recall reading about a more enjoyable cluster of characters and situations. The personalities in this collection are sharply defined, but without a sharp edge, and their day-to-day issues resonate clearly with the reader. You don't have to be Jewish to love this collection.
Unforgotten by D. J. Meador is a 1998 novel about our involvement in the Korean War. It focuses on a U.S. Lieutenant who questions a strategic decision that ultimately affects not only his military career, but also later events in his civilian life. It is well-written, sometimes dramatic, and guaranteed to hold your attention. This is a story about a "police action" that until recently was pretty well swept under the American carpet.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis reminds me that the more I read about this particular founding father, the less I'm inclined to like him. Without going into detail, let me mention his conduct in hiring a slanderer before and after he becomes a felon to malign John Adams in the bitter presidential race of 1800. That act of misconduct was particularly reprehensible when you consider that the two men had been close friends and colleagues and, much later in life, would resume a now-famous correspondence. I also note without comment that when Jefferson died, unlike George Washington, he failed to free his slaves. Despite my misgivings about Jefferson, Ellis' award-winning 1997 reexamination of this most contradictory founding father is highly readable and worthwhile. (And, yes, American Sphinx was the basis for Ken Burns' Jefferson documentary.)
Legends: A Novel Of Dissimulation by Robert Littell is a twisty and provocative thriller about a CIA agent who has assumed so many different identities that he no longer remembers who he is at any given time. This 2005 work is a mélange of bizarre situations, betrayal from inside The Company and a shifting core of surprising personalities. (In a column last year, I talked about another of Littell's books, The Company: A Novel of the CIA, which I liked very much.)
There you have them, a selection of eclectic books, any one of which might appeal to one or more of the names on your gift list in this era of tight budgets and other pressing concerns. (And, needless to say, you might like one or more of these books for yourself.) They are easily obtained from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and all of them are available as audio books, a popular format for business travelers.
A note to readers: In my next column, I'll take an in-depth look at books about Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill, two giants of the 20th century.
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2008 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.