By Martin B. Deutsch
December 16, 2010 -- Hard to believe, but it's the holiday season again and there are the familiar last-minute pressures to find thoughtful and reasonably priced gifts. And guess what? My recommendations for the third year in a row focus on an item that I've always loved to receive, namely a book.

I've used no formula in choosing this year's selections. There are no current best sellers by popular authors, either. These subjective selections are based totally on what I've read recently and range from works written in the late 19th century to a recent crop of singular offerings.

This year, I have also noted each book's availability in non-traditional formats such as audio CDs, downloads and editions for electronic readers such as Kindle. I've also linked you to Amazon.com's page for the book and its various formats. Finally, if you don't find anything on this year's list that suits, consider my holiday recommendations from 2009 and 2008.

In The Fall by Jeffrey Lent is a large and sprawling work of fiction from 2000 that embraces three generations of a family, going back to the Civil War and eventually moving into the early 20th century. A young Union soldier comes home to the family's New England farm with a young bride, a former slave. Though not exactly ostracized, they lead a somewhat isolated life and she bears two daughters and a son. Driven by curiosity and a sense of guilt, the wife eventually returns to her former home in the Carolinas, with drastic consequences.

Their son runs off and soon enough becomes involved in a roller-coaster romance and illegal liquor trafficking with a dire outcome. His son, now 16, returns to the Carolinas to try to piece together his grandmother's early life. Stay tuned.

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio cassette and downloadable audiobook. Click here for the Amazon.com page.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin was first published in 2005 amid great critical acclaim. The accolades for this ambitious, beautifully written and deeply researched study are thoroughly justified. It chronicles how Lincoln brought together his three competitors for the 1860 Republican Party nomination, thus forging a highly effective cabinet from diverse talent, egos and political perspectives. Although Team of Rivals runs more than 700 pages, it is a relatively fast read given Ms. Goodwin's ability to spin her story like a novel, keeping you focused and fascinated, even though you pretty much know how every event will play out.

Beyond a highly sympathetic portrait of Lincoln and his family, the chief characters are finely drawn, with rich detail of their backgrounds, family lives and aspirations. The team of rivals include William H. Seward, who became Secretary of State; Salmon P. Chase, who became Secretary of the Treasury; and Edward Bates, who became Attorney General. The author also weaves in key military leaders, influential politicians and other key members of the Lincoln cabinet, especially Edwin M. Stanton, whose contribution as Secretary of War is sometimes downplayed or overlooked.

If someone you know has the slightest interest in Civil War history, this rich tapestry guarantees rewarding reading and a grateful "Thank You!" from the recipient.

Available in paperback, hardcover, audio CD, downloadable audio and eBook. Click here for the Amazon.com page.

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography by the eloquent and polarizing Christopher Hitchens is a lucid and fact-filled narrative about the man most of us know only vaguely as the author of Common Sense. In just 160 pages, Hitchens' 2007 biography presents a vivid portrait of one of the architects of the philosophy that gave birth to the American Revolution.

Paine's policies and theories helped form this nation and are particularly relevant in today's poisonous and partisan atmosphere. Beyond his Rights of Man, Paine's other still-influential works include The Age of Reason and, of course, Common Sense.

Hitchens enlivens this terse biography with anecdotal material that, for the most part, is new to me. For example, Paine joined the French Revolution in the 1790s and, like many of the revolutionaries, found himself in prison destined for the guillotine. His life was accidentally saved when a jailer chalked a large X--to indicate who was to be executed on the following morning--on the wrong side of Paine's cell door. A few days later, when the revolution changed hands once again, he was released.

This biography should be read--or reread--by all of our political leaders.

Available in hardcover, paperback and downloadable audiobook. Click here for the Amazon page.

I tired of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone detective stories after A Is for Alibi and the next five or six alphabetical novels, so I skipped the books that began with the next 10 or 15 letters. But urged on by an occasional need for lighter literary diversion, I committed to her latest entry, U Is for Undertow, a 2009 best seller. I was pleasantly surprised: It's not bad. Well-plotted, with interesting characters and unusual twists, I enjoyed running into Kinsey after all these years. I found the final pages somewhat dismissive and flawed in terms of loose ends, but this is still a good choice for an airplane, hotel room or beach read. And there's always the consolation that, should this book disappoint, there are just five letters left in the series.

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio CD, downloadable audiobook and eBook. Click here for the Amazon page.

I was reintroduced to W. Somerset Maugham by a 1928 spy novel, Ashenden: Or the British Agent, considered by some of his successors to be one of the greatest spy novels ever written. It totally defies anything I've ever read in this genre and seems to be based on the author's own experience as an intelligence agent for the British secret service. Unlike the espionage thrillers that have since evolved, the emphasis is rarely on physical derring-do or heart-stopping suspense, but rather on the emotional dimensions and motivations of his opponents.

I found Ashenden to be an intriguing read and was particularly impressed with Maugham's command of the English language. And that led me to Jeffrey Meyers' The W. Somerset Maugham Reader.

This attractive 2004 collection includes a full-length novel, excerpts from several other novels, short stories and, believe it or not, some excellent and unusual travel writing. Among the diverse entries, I'll mention just a few, although I enjoyed the entire collection.
   The Hero, a 1901 short novel, is basically a cynical outlook of what really constitutes a hero and, beyond that, a devastating picture of relationships, especially marriage.
   There is an excerpt from 1915's Of Human Bondage, a best seller in its day, which was made into the 1934 film classic starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Here we meet the main character, Philip Carey, in his difficult and unhappy boarding school days, an orphan with a physical affliction that informs the direction his life will take. The book is probably autobiographical to some extent.
   In The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia, Maugham travels alone, on horseback, through the Andalusian countryside. This 1905 work recounts his impressions of the locals he meets and provides brief cameo glimpses into their rustic lives. His experiences are real and often raw, with a humanity that you rarely find in today's travel blogs or commentary.

Overall, this Maugham collection is particularly appealing in that it allows the reader to sample the carefully selected entries and to dip in and out of Maugham's work at will.

Available only in paperback. Click here for the Amazon.com page.

Let me extend my warmest best wishes to you all for a healthy, happy and recession-free 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 2010 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.