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TWO AUTHORS, FIVE BOOKS, GREAT GIFTS
By Martin B. Deutsch
December 8, 2011 -- Around this time every year, I go to my computer and convey my thoughts about some of the most interesting nonfiction works and novels that I've read during the last 12 months.
I am motivated by the concept that a book makes a great--and reasonably priced--holiday gift for others or for yourself. These days, of course, a "book" can mean not only a traditional hardcover or paperback. but also an e-reader download or an audio file. And you can "read" a book on a tablet or Smartphone. But I still believe in the tactile pleasure of holding a paper book in your hands while reading it. If this makes me sound old-fashioned and unresponsive to the rapidly changing realities in our digital world, so be it!
Let's move on to the literary works under consideration this holiday season.
DOUBLE DYSFUNCTION VIA JONATHAN FRANZEN
Jonathan Franzen has written two novels, among others, that have garnered all kinds of literary awards: There's 2001's The Corrections and his most recent entry, Freedom, which debuted in 2010. Oddly enough, I had trouble getting into both books, but I prevailed in both instances and actually became fond of some of the dysfunctional and fascinating characters who populate these stories.
Freedom involves an unusual triangle: The woman in the middle marries one college roommate and hankers for decades after the other. The two men are close friends and the one she marries is a genuine do-gooder whose environmental objectives focus on everything from pursuing greedy coal-mining corporations to saving birds from predatory cats.
His flawed and ultimately failed exploits with a coal magnate make for particularly compelling reading. However, our hero is more successful in his efforts to safeguard the avian population. His best friend is a jazz musician who performs and writes meaningful lyrics and who seems to spend most of his life fighting off the ladies. One of them, of course, is his best friend's wife. The couple in question has children, a son and daughter, the former providing an entertaining subplot in a book richly endowed with subplots.
In some respects, the earlier entry, The Corrections, is more improbable. It follows the lives of an upper-Midwestern family comprised of a domineering father; a manipulative mother; a self-righteous lawyer son, who has his own family; another son who spends some time in Lithuania, of all places, handling public relations for a quasi-criminal enterprise on the Internet; and a bisexual daughter with a growing reputation as a chef who has a wild romance with her boss' wife.
Franzen's writing in both books is contemporary, relaxed and always enjoyable. There is also a good deal of humor and his characters seem real, although you might expect to find some of their exploits in a TV reality show. I'm genuinely looking forward to Franzen's next fictional foray.
A TRIPLE PLAY ON TR FROM EDMOND MORRIS
Edmund Morris' biographical trilogy about our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, is a triumph, a masterpiece of research and a literary achievement that very often reads like fine fiction in a historical context.
Amazingly, the first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, was published in 1979 and reissued in 2010. The second book, Theodore Rex, debuted in 2005. Colonel Roosevelt, the final book in the trilogy, was published last year.
Roosevelt, of course, is a subject of colossal and never-ending interest. He is both revered and reviled and literally hundreds of books, articles and essays have been devoted to this larger-than-life figure. He is a trust-buster; an elitist; a man who invites an eminent "negro" to dinner at the White House, but who says nothing about the lynchings in the south; a man with an obsessive desire for power; a warm and loving father of six and a devoted husband. In fact, his marriage to Edith Kermit Carrow is a high point in the often rocky history of White House marital relations.
TR is the moving force behind many American national parks and monuments. Yet he is also a ruthless hunter of big game and smaller species. Hunting was a passion since his teen years and it culminated in a year-long African safari during which he bagged nine elephants, eight lions, as well as giraffes, hippos and rhinos. His total: 293 kills. His trophies may still be seen in his world-famous home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, New York, and at Manhattan's Museum of Natural History, which helped underwrite some of his more extensive travels.
A frail and asthmatic child, TR built himself up by strenuous outdoor activities. As a young adult, he became a part-time rancher out west. He eventually considered himself both a Westerner and an "Eastener."
In 1913, he and his son Kermit were part of an expeditionary team that explored an unknown tributary of the Amazon called the River of Doubt. This trip proved nearly fatal to the former president and also permanently undermined his son's health. A 2005 book by Candice Millard, The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, is a superb evocation of this ill-fated adventure. (I reviewed and heartily recommended it here.)
TR suffered from malaria during the trip. He first contracted the recurrent disease in 1898 when he led his Rough Riders as a U.S. colonel during the Franco-American War in Cuba. For decades afterward, malaria was referred to as the "Cuban fever."
In 1912, when Roosevelt ran for president on the Bull Moose Progressive ticket after splitting from the Republican party, he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. He carried that bullet in his chest until his death in early January, 1919. Had he won the presidency again, many believed that the "most famous man in the world" might have had the clout with Europe's leaders to prevent World War I. After all, TR was awarded the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
TR was also the most prolific president in history, writing dozens of books on his sojourns, his political views and his other personal experiences. He wrote thousands of newspaper and magazine articles. Unbelievably, he penned more than 150,000 letters, some two-thirds of which survive. His fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said that TR was the greatest man he ever knew.
And little-known factoid: TR is the only U.S. president born in Manhattan and his birthplace, part of the National Parks Service, is open to visitors via guided tours.
We are fortunate that a biographer and historian of Edmund Morris' stature is on hand to magnify TR's life and reputation for all of us and for generations to come.
A note to readers: Amazon.com sells Johnathan Franzen's novels as well as Edmond Morris' trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt.
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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 © 2011 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.