Books for the Holidays


I offer here ten books that I encourage you to consider for holiday gifts. I wrote about each one over the past year. Here I only briefly extract from those comments.


While The Rest Of These Books Are Unranked, I Must Give Helen Dewitt's The Last Samurai (Hyperion) first place on this list. I found it quite simply the BEST book I have read in a very long time. But -- why is there always a but? -- I know that it will not be everyone's cup of tea. If the inclusion of Greek and Arabic letters and oriental ideographs -- even though you're not expected to read them -- puts you off, if you're unwilling to see the genuine humor in following such things as a mother attempting to manage the demands of a compulsive learner, you're in trouble here. If, on the other hand, you're willing to suspend judgment until you get to the enormous heart of this wonderful book, you will have a thrilling ride ahead.


I wish that The Game of Life by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen (Princeton) made more of a dent in the ingrained beliefs of my University at Buffalo colleagues. While it didn't, it still contains a message that ought to be heard and acted upon. (The promises of responses by national athletic governing bodies I find not just unresponsive but invariably self-serving.) Basing their conclusions on a massive ten year quantitative research program that includes data collected in 1951, 1976 and 1989, these authors effectively destroy such accepted convictions as college sports programs pay for themselves, playing sports builds character, athletic contests encourage alumni support, and college sports play a major factor in the integration of underrepresented minorities into higher education.


Mark Spragg's Where Rivers Change Direction (University of Utah) is a wonderful evocation of ranch life. It captured me from its first words: "When I was a boy my father had horses, over a hundred of them, some of them rank, and I sat them well. He believed that horses were to use and that boys were nothing if not used. He believed that by putting me with horses he was tending to some obvious plan of economy. It was his hope that we would redeem one another. More practically, that we would prove compensative, the horses and I, of our demands for feed and housing. I went to work for him when I was eleven. I was paid thirty dollars a month, had my own bed in the bunkhouse, and three large, plain meals each day."


Catherine Goldiner's novel, Too Close to the Falls (Viking) is an absolute delight and, as a bonus for us here in western New York, it is about Lewiston and Niagara Falls in the 1950s. The heroine and narrator, Catherine McClure, is a character of whom Mark Twain would have been proud. Daughter of a druggist and, even before she is old enough to attend school, an assistant to Roy, the black deliveryman for her father, she interacts with all kinds of local characters including even Marilyn Monroe, in town working on the movie Niagara.


Next we enter what I called the delightful, sometimes wacky but always extraordinarily insightful world of Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir (Scribner, 2001). Is it possible to describe a scientist's book as wonderfully anthropomorphic? In this case, absolutely yes! The evidence is support of this takes two forms: First, it is certainly clear that Sapolsky is a well-qualified scientist. And second, his assignment of Biblical names -- Naomi, Samuel, Leah, Devorah, Daniel, Uriah -- to individual baboons and his descriptions of their too-human-like traits in no way compromises the serious side of his work. Rather it allows us to enter his strange and often hilarious world.


Loren Keller's Four And Twenty Bluebeards (personally published) is another regional story, this one loosely based on the ruminations about Bluebeard by the narrator, Martin Culver, an actor and amateur historian. Culver tells us: "My Bluebeard summer. To be accurate, it started several months before summer; and started, strangely, with my learning what being Bluebeard felt like, from inside. I've called this part 'Bernard', after George Bernard Shaw, since my first encounter with Bluebeard was as an actor playing that role in what must have been the first Buffalo production of Saint Joan since, say, Katharine Cornell." Completely captured by this book, I have had the good fortune to listen to it on tape -- a total of three times so far!


Two fine muckraking books were published this year. I said of them: Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (Holt) has made me both ashamed and angry -- embarrassed at my country for our taking advantage of our poor and deeply enraged at our politicians for their readiness to sweep the problems of our "less-well-off" -- better translated as "poverty-stricken" -- under the rug. All this at a time of unparalleled prosperity for the rest of us. Meanwhile serious problems lurk behind the scenes of our franchised quick-serve restaurants and Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin) has done a fine job in researching and presenting them. His book makes for cautionary reading. In the tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, he pulls no punches. This book deserves close reading by legislators as well as the rest of us. I will never again feel the same biting into a McDonald's cheeseburger.


David McCullough's John Adams (Simon & Schuster) has turned our second president, too long considered a subordinate player among the big shots of our nation's founding fathers -- Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton -- into a genuine popular hero every bit the equal of his contemporaries. In the process he reverses the fortunes of Adams' friend, then political enemy, then finally friend again, Thomas Jefferson.


Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home (Simon & Schuster), is a remarkable, attention-holding but deeply disturbing read. It is the story, as its subtitle tells us, of Birmingham Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. A very personal narrative, it leaves us not only with more insights into what went on during those terrible times, but also with serious concerns about a past still within many of our lifetimes.


Best wishes for the holidays. I hope that you spend at least part of them reading books.