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THE 2009 HOLIDAY READING ROOM
By Martin B. Deutsch
December 10, 2009 -- Plagued by an intractable economy and a staggering rise in job losses, the American consumer continues to map out a more frugal approach to year-end holiday gift giving. This translates into a search for more thoughtful and less-expensive presents.

My favorite low-priced presents: books. Regardless of format--electronic, audio or traditional print--books make great gifts for frequent flyers because they always need a fresh supply of reading material. And with immediate downloads available for the electronic book readers sold by Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Sony--not to mention overnight or even same-day delivery of paper books from some booksellers--the gifts are quick to secure, too.

As with last year's list of holiday books for business travelers, I tend to shy away from the current bestsellers, which I usually find repetitive, predictable and formulaic. So you'll find recommendations among this assortment of my current favorites that go back a few years. When it comes to literature, both fiction and non-fiction, no one can accuse me of age discrimination.

The Voyage by Philip Caputo is a stirring and provocative novel published in 2005. It's set in the first years of the 20th century when a wealthy New England tycoon inexplicably sends his three teenaged sons away for the summer on the family's 48-foot sailing vessel. The puzzled, uneasy boys make a decision to sail south to Florida, accompanied by an Ivy League student and a pet cat. The journey takes them on a raft of adventures, from a near-fatal barroom brawl in Manhattan to a perplexing visit with a great aunt in the Carolinas. They also encounter several major storms, including a mammoth hurricane that drives them ashore in Cuba. There is more, too: the unraveling of a destructive family secret; a murder; and even a shark attack. All of this is crafted into a carefully plotted and brilliantly spun yarn by Caputo, who is probably best known for A Rumor of War, the bestseller in which the author recounts his own experiences as a Marine lieutenant in the later years of the Vietnam War. Apart from The Voyage, most of Caputo's other books are nonfiction, usually centered in East Africa.

True North by Kimberly Kafka was first published in 2003 and it is a gripping and terse tale about a young couple from New England. Their ambition to illegally mine gold in Alaska triggers a series of harsh events that are both suspenseful and compelling. The reclusive heroine, who also hails from New England, earns a living by piloting a small seaplane for commercial and rescue missions. The relative stability she achieved in her personal life by retreating into the Alaskan wilderness begins to come apart with the arrival of the young tourist couple. Major subplots invoke the hatred of outsiders by the locals and an evolving romantic relationship between the heroine and a key figure among the indigenous natives. True North offers interesting insight into the oil-rich state as well as conflicting states of mind. And yes, Kimberly Kafka is a descendant of Franz Kafka, author of The Trial, the terrifying tale of a man arrested by an unidentified authority who never learns the reason for his ordeal.

The Spies of Warsaw was published last year by Alan Furst, the author of many low-key espionage novels that concentrate on a Europe teetering on the edge of, and in the early years of, the Second World War. The Spies of Warsaw is not necessarily one of my favorites in Furst's repertoire, but it is highly readable and distinguished by always-believable characters who dominate an always-believable plot. This time, the central figure is a middle-aged French career diplomat based in Warsaw not long before Hitler invades Poland. His job: carrying out intelligence assignments for the high command in Paris. Of particular interest is the strong implication, probably accurate in a historical context, that the French government and the French military ignored pregnant warnings that the Germans were planning to invade Poland and that they would ultimately turn west, flank the Maginot Line and invade France through the Ardennes, Belgium and Holland. There's also the obligatory romance. Other books by Alan Furst include a recent bestseller, Foreign Correspondent, (2006) and Dark Voyage (2004).

The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik is a 2007 nonfiction masterpiece subtitled "America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800." Exhaustively researched and written with great flair, this 659-page history emphasizes three inter-related eruptions on the world scene: the adoption of the American Constitution and the formal arrival of the United States; the blood-soaked French Revolution and the beheading of the French king and queen; and repressive steps taken by Catherine the Great of Russia, who moved to the far right politically in order to ensure that the revolutionary fever did not spread to her empire. The weaving together of these powerful movements on the global stage is like reading a superior suspense novel, only richer in detail and with more credibility. I'm getting ready to read a 2001 work by Winik, April 1865, an updated retelling of the last days of the Civil War.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin provides an engaging look into this least-public of our national institutions. This 2007 work emphasizes the role of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during her years on the Court, particularly her deciding vote in the 5-4 ruling that gave George W. Bush the presidency in December, 2000. There is almost too much detail on the machinations that gave Bush the Oval Office, but it doesn't detract from a great read into a fascinating branch of government. Incidentally, you can often catch Toobin in his role as a senior analyst on CNN.

In a nutshell, there are my recommendations for this year's holiday gift list. And, please accept my sincere and warmest best wishes for a healthy, happy and remunerative New Year.

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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 2009 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.