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FOR THE REALLY LAST-MINUTE SHOPPER
By Martin B. Deutsch
December 22, 2011 -- If you're reading this and still haven't finished your holiday shopping, I have wonderful news. All of the books I mentioned in my previous column and the ones I recommend below are still available on a rush-delivery basis from Amazon.com.
I believe all of the books stand on their own merit, of course. But I know your time is precious as we count down the hours to the holidays, so a little shopping and reading never hurts. So let's consider giftable books about war and man's inhumanity to man and a tale of a scientific hero for the ages.
MUSIC AMIDST THE MAYHEM
Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo is a concise and touching foray into man's inhumanity to man, as well as his better self. The backdrop is the 1990s war in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, where neighbor was killing neighbor over ethnicity, religion and perceived economic advantages.
One day, in a public square in Sarajevo, a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting in a bread line. As a way to honor the memory of his neighbors, and to relieve his own anger and angst, a cellist revisits the scene of the carnage 22 times. On each visit, he sits in a folding chair and plays Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor despite the danger of performing in the open.
The story also follows several other citizens of Sarajevo, their desperate efforts to survive, feed their families and to somehow understand the random violence that surrounds them. One is a young, single woman who becomes a sniper to protect her neighbors. She then morphs into a deadly killing machine and a tragic symbol of the choices that war forces us to make.
A relatively short work of 256 pages, this sensitive 2008 tale effectively tackles a horrific issue. It's a fine read.
COMPARING APPLES AND COUNTERFEIT COINS
Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist is less a novel about sleuthing than a compact and readable biography of Sir Isaac Newton. The author of this 2009 work, Thomas Levenson, explains that Sir Issac was a loner and an academic who taught at Cambridge. After a five-year attempt to convert mercury to gold, Newton lands a job as Warden of the Royal Mint in London in the mid-1690s. At the time, the Royal Mint was challenged by growing traffic in counterfeit coins and in paper currency, which was just being introduced.
The main villain of the piece is a counterfeiter named William Chaloner, a streetwise and formidable foe, who gives Newton a run for his money. Justice eventually triumphs, of course. But it seems to me that Sir Isaac's detective works never goes beyond interviewing suspects and informants and it was Chaloner's arrogance and overconfidence that eventually helped lead him to the gallows.
Levenson includes plenty of footnotes and historic insights into Newton's work. But as I also confided to you in a review of an Einstein biography, I am no scientist. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't comprehend Einstein's major theories--and I find myself in the same boat with Newton. But it didn't stop me from appreciating this story.
Yes, dear reader, there is an apple tree in Sir Isaac's garden on the family farm. And, yes, he frequently sat and read under it. However, there is no solid evidence to substantiate the supposition that his theory of gravity was proven when one of the apples fell on his head. In any case, it's a lovely theory.
SIX BOOKS AND TWO WARS
In 1996, Michael Shaara wrote The Killer Angels, probably the most engrossing novel I've ever read about the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. What I gathered from that relatively slim volume was that General Robert E. Lee probably lost the war at this farm in Pennsylvania and, almost as importantly, that he would never again successfully invade the North.
Although I highly recommend it, this isn't a commentary about The Killer Angels. Shaara's story was, in effect, finished by at least two additional Civil War sagas by his son, Jeff. And it is Jeff Shaara's solo work that concerns us now.
Jeff Shaara has written a number of works that I can only call fiction encased in historical fact. What makes the younger Shaara's work fiction is that real historical characters are endowed with words they never actually spoke, although the dialogue remains true to the context of what actually happened.
In his trilogy on World War II, we "overhear" the conversations and thoughts of key players such as Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel and other German generals. We even "meet" such giant figures as Churchill and FDR. Shaara also follows his characters after the war to their final days. It's often a fascinating exercise--if you are interested in war novels and the people that inhabit them.
Shaara's work begins with The Rising Tide (2006), followed by The Steel Wave (2008) and No Less Than Victory (2009). They are loaded with historical data, down to the day and hour and minute, and give us a modern-day form of fiction, which publishing types sometimes call faction. This year, Shaara completed a fourth and final tome, The Final Storm. It focuses on the end of the war in the Pacific. So perhaps this is a quadrilogy or, more grammatically, a tetralogy.
Shaara also has a massive work on World War I. Published in 2004, To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War uses the same approach to bring blood and guts (and I mean blood and guts) to this horrific conflict. We meet all of the prominent participants: Blackjack Pershing, French and British generals, the Germans Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, as well as heroes of lesser rank whose names did not graduate to the history books.
Many of the early chapters focus on that new form of warfare, namely the air war. We are introduced to Manfred von Richthofen, Germany's Red Baron, and an American of similar capabilities. He flies for a French squadron made up of U.S. volunteers before America enters the war. Then we move on to those incomprehensible ground battles, where victories are measured in yards, and daily casualties in the tens of thousands.
If you like your wars up close and personal, Jeff Shaara is your man.
Finally, warmest wishes for the holidays. My wife, Denise, my daughter, Ariel, and I see great things for the coming 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 © 2011 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.