By Martin B. Deutsch
December 20, 2007 -- The year-end holiday season has us in its thrall, which means you still have plenty of time to do your friends, your family, your business colleagues and yourself--especially yourself--some small gift favors.

I'm talking specifically about two excellent nonfiction books. They aren't brand new in terms of publication date, but they are terrific reads and both are now available in hardcover and trade paperback versions.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey first published in 2005, is a beautifully written account of a dangerous and desperate Amazon River journey undertaken just before World War I by the former U. S. president and one of his sons, Kermit. The co-commander of Roosevelt's expedition is, at least for me, the most compelling figure in the drama. Colonel Candido Rondon was a man of integrity, endurance and commitment who was destined to become Brazil's most-celebrated explorer.

Roosevelt recently had been defeated for a third term in an angry and protracted race and was looking to bury his psychic wounds in a test of outdoor strength, something he had done throughout his life. The quest brought him to South America for an adventure beyond his capabilities and it almost cost him his life. He and most of his companions survived the 1,000-mile, piranha-infested River of Doubt, but the arduous journey destroyed Roosevelt's health during his last few years. The pristine Amazon jungle waterway had earlier been named the River of Doubt by the same Colonel Rondon; at some point during the expedition with the former president, Rondon renames the river after Roosevelt.

The trek of many months began in the barren Brazilian highlands, by itself a desolate and frustrating sojourn, and continued on a river choked with rapids, whirlpools, waterfalls and other obstructions. Apart from a mysterious Indian tribe, which lived in the same primitive fashion for perhaps thousands of years, no one had ever navigated or visited the tempestuous area. Early on, Colonel Rondon had been in this general region when he led a small unit of Brazilian soldiers in a successful effort to bring telephone lines into a virgin landscape.

Whenever the author, Candice Millard, a writer and editor for National Geographic, describes the environment that envelops the Roosevelt expedition, her prose verges on poetry. She tells us of the stifling heat, the incessant rainfall and cloudbursts, the veils of insects and bugs, the poisonous snakes and other dangerous animals so well-camouflaged that they were barely visible. Then, of course, there is the omnipresence of disease, particularly malaria.

I read this 432-page book in less than five days and I was sorry to have to put it down.

Then there's Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew. Written by Brian Hicks, it's a puzzling tale of the sea that dates back to 1872 and is finally resolved, the author believes, only with this publication of his theory.

As sailing ships began to bow to the inevitability of steamships, the two-masted Mary Celeste starts out from New York for Europe under the command of a highly experienced Atlantic skipper, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs. Also aboard are Briggs' young wife, their baby and an experienced crew of seven sailors. Several weeks later, another merchant ship, also under the command of an American captain, spotted the Mary Celeste drifting aimlessly off the coast of Portugal. The captain of the Dei Gratia sent three of his men to investigate; they found no one aboard even though the Mary Celeste appears to be in good shape, her cargo of industrial alcohol virtually intact and the rough-weather gear of the crew still on board. Several members of the Dei Gratia crew brought the Mary Celeste into the British port of Gibraltar under recognized salvage laws. That action launched a long and bitter court hearing, more than a hundred years of speculation and theories involving foul play and the supernatural.

Written in 2004, Ghost Ship is well-researched and well-written and holds your interest throughout the entire 305-page journey. Hicks even comes up with a convincing conclusion to the mystery. At times, Ghost Ship reads like a suspense novel--and you really become anxious to find out how it all ends.

As I said in a recent column, however, you can't live on words alone. You have to eat and that leads me to this restaurant review and the answer to an uncommon culinary question.

I recently joined a party of four at The Prime Grill, a glatt kosher restaurant across the street from the posh Palace Hotel in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.

Just what is glatt kosher, I wondered. I'd never gotten a satisfactory answer before, so, a few days after the meal, I called The Prime Grill and was connected with the rabbi who supervises the dietary laws. His explanation was clear-cut (no pun intended): glatt means flat or smooth in German. The butcher runs his hand over the inside of the animal's lung to make sure that there are no imperfections or other signs of disease or damage. "The lung must be glatt," the Rabbi told me. This, then, appears to be the key step beyond the basic kosher procedures.

"What if the cow smokes?" I asked, facetiously. The rabbi laughed, but provided no further insights.

Back at the restaurant, dozens of hungry clients waited. When we were seated at a comfortable table, as per our reservation, I found the dining room spacious and handsome, not too loud and staffed with friendly and proficient professionals. I ordered the sashimi appetizer, which was priced by the piece; I had four slices of tuna (okay) and four pieces of the salmon (excellent), served with rice ($52). Caesar salads were $14 each. Entrees included chicken paillard on a bed of greens ($24); an oversized hamburger ($25); and a chicken club sandwich ($22.50). I went with the braised halibut ($42), which was fine, but certainly not the best I've ever tasted. Assessments of the other entrees ranged from good to very good.

The Prime Grill features an ambitious kosher menu and, of course, a kosher wine list. The dining room is always crowded, so reservations are a must for both lunch and dinner. Incidentally, the restaurant has its own room for aging beef and, in keeping with its kosher orientation, is closed on Friday evening and until after sundown on Saturday. Despite the high prices, The Prime Grill is worth the visit. After all, how many elegant and successful glatt kosher restaurants can you find in our country?

I hope that you are enjoying the holidays and I wish you the best for a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.
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 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.