Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
Great Books for the Last on Your List
December 18, 2014 -- It's hard to believe, but the holidays are upon us again and it remains the time of year when many of us are faced with the reoccurring crisis of gift-giving.

If you're still searching for something to give--by choice or obligation--to family, friends, neighbors, business associates or clients, it's never too late to consider the perfect gift: a book. With so many formats, online ordering and last-minute delivery, it's easier than ever to select and quickly send a "book" of choice.

Below you'll find a handful of favorites from my 2014 reading list. For reasons that elude even me, they all revolve around events that touch on the Second World War.

Allow me once again to sing the praises of Alan Furst, who I discovered in 2007 and recommended in 2009. His brilliantly atmospheric novels are mostly set in a 1930s Europe that is uneasy and apprehensive about the oncoming conflict that will eventually engulf the continent and much of the rest of the world. This year, I specifically recommend Furst's 2012 Mission to Paris, another intelligent and nuanced story that is clearly summed up in the title. Furst has added another highly praised work with this year’s Midnight in Europe, which I hope to catch up with soon.

The Bridge at Remagen relates the celebrated tale of how the Allied armed forces finally crossed the Rhine into Germany in 1945 via a series of events directed by both luck and pluck. The individual players on both sides of the Ludendorff Bridge, whether an American non-com or a German general, are drawn with precision and, I presume, authenticity. Written in 1957 by Ken Hechlen, who's now 100 years old and the oldest living person to serve in Congress, The Bridge at Remagen was the basis of the 1969 film by the same name starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughan.

Sir Max Hastings, an Oxford-educated don who became a journalist, is also a successful historian as well as a prolific author who has turned out war novels of great distinction and readability. I refer you particularly to three of his nonfiction works: Retribution: Japan 1944-1945; Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45; and Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. These hard-nosed accounts showcase Hastings' distinctive style and he carries the reader seamlessly from page to page. His realistic battle descriptions are interspersed with reliable quotes from the participants in these monumental events. In 2011's Inferno, we encounter what may well be the definitive work of its kind on World War II. And it's certainly no surprise that Queen Elizabeth II bestowed a knighthood on Hastings in recognition of his contributions to the history of modern warfare. Bravo!

The Exiles Return, written in the late 1950s and finally published in the United States this year, is intense and carefully crafted fiction. Set in 1954 and 1955 in a Vienna still devastated by the war, it involves a Jewish scientist, a somewhat alienated teenager and a Greek tycoon.

The scientist is leading a financially secure but troubled married life in the states when he decides to flee from it all, particularly his wife. He ends up at his former workplace in Vienna now run by an unrepentant Nazi, who ironically holds the job that should rightfully belong to the scientist. Also back, so to speak, is an incredibly wealthy former Austrian of Greek descent. He's looking to reestablish his roots in the capital city. There's also an 18-year-old beauty, the American daughter of an exiled Austrian princess, who doesn't really seem to fit into her new surroundings. The behind-the-scenes glimpse of the recovering Vienna and its shattered image is provocative.

The author, Elisabeth de Waal, was born in Vienna in 1899 and died in 1991. An exile from Hitler's Austria for a good part of her life, she wrote five novels, two in German and three in English, none of which were published in her lifetime. Her writing offers carefully delineated characters and plots that could easily be accepted as reality.

The author and the life she led is related in 2010's The Hare with Amber Eyes, a family memoir by her grandson, Edmund de Waal. And it turns out Elisabeth was at least as interesting as any of the characters in her novels. That's because there's a bit of his grandmother in all of the main characters, the younger de Waal concludes in a lengthy forward to The Exiles Return. "Elisabeth de Waal was Viennese and this is a novel about being Viennese...about exile and about return...about a place which is part of your identity, but which has also rejected you. But above all the book is about the heartbreak of returning."

The late J. G. Ballard first came to prominence in the 1960s thanks to a string of innovative science fiction and dystopian novels. Then came 1984's Empire of the Sun, a novel that recounts his childhood experience as a prisoner with his family at a Japanese internment camp in China during World War II. (The book eventually became a much-admired film directed by Stephen Spielberg.) But in 2008, Ballard gave us a touching autobiography, which he wrote with the foreknowledge that he was terminally ill. Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton is an intimate and nostalgic look at a life that was challenging and, ultimately, fulfilling.

This column is Copyright © 2014 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.