In case you are beside yourself, hoping for some brilliant gift suggestion for the last few people on your lists, here are a few ideas from some familiar faces:
History. Empire by Niall Ferguson. The rehabilitation of the British Empire goes on. Nice to see people Poor but Proud–Alabama’s Poor Whites, and Alabama–The History of a Deep South State, by William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, and that same Wayne Flynt. Excellent history in both books: plenty of supporting facts and statistics imbedded in good strong narratives, enlivened with quotations and anecdotes.
Travel. The grand tradition of travel writing in English is alive and well in Stephen J. Bodio’s Eagle Dreams, a book about the Kazakh eagle-hunters of western Mongolia. These are not people who hunt eagles, but people who hunt with eagles–a sort of ultimate falconry. Fascinating, brilliant, often moving, and sometimes very funny–as I said, this book is firmly in the great travel-writing tradition of Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Newby and Paul Theroux.
And speaking of that tradition, the cover of the December 2003 Literary Review features a drawing of Norman Lewis, the fine English travel writer of the 1940s and 1950s who died in July at the age of 95. Lewis’s 1951 book A Dragon Apparent, about his travels in what was then French Indo-China, is a real classic, an ideal introduction for anyone who wants to know about that misty, jungly, strangely cruel part of the world.
Math and science. I very much liked Julian Havil’s book Gamma–Exploring Euler’s Constant, notwithstanding the fact that Julian disappeared mysteriously in the middle of a lunch date I was having with him in Manhattan. I hope he found his way back to England all right. Euler’s constant is one of those numbers, like pi and e, that crop up all over the place in math. Its value is a tad larger than 0.57721566490153286060651. Julian Havil’s book will tell you all about it.
Another book I have enjoyed was Stephen Webb’s Gulag, Anne Applebaum’s stunning, gut-wrenching history of the Soviet work camp. NRO readers are probably more likely than most Americans to understand already the hideous nature of the Soviet system, and the special brutalities of the Stalinist era. But Applebaum’s meticulous research–she cross-references survivors’ memoirs with documents from newly opened archives–and austere writing will take that understanding to a deeper and more bitter level. It is an astonishing and terrible tale, and not to be missed.
On the other end of the Russo-spectrum, may I also recommend George MacDonald Fraser’s brilliantly witty Flashman at the Charge, in which the swashbuckling coward, Harry Flashman, leads the Charge of the Light Brigade in one of the funniest scenes of flatulance ever to make it into print.
JOHN J. MILLER
Blood is the Sky, by Steve Hamilton: The fifth and latest in a series of engrossing whodunits set mainly in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This is one of Hamilton’s best.
Bandbox, by Thomas Mallon: True, this novel doesn’t officially come out until early January. But Mallon’s other novels are excellent and I try to read most of what he writes. This one is set in 1920s New York and I gather that Calvin Coolidge has a cameo.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien: Have you heard of it?
Napoleon, by Paul Johnson: An impressive takedown of a horrible little man whose lust for power led to some 6 million deaths.
Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, edited by David Stephen Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler: An outstanding resource–not cheap, but unbelievably comprehensive. And who wouldn’t want to own a book with 2,733 pages?