If your Christmas list includes some history buffs, look no further than these thrilling adventures
We'll start way back at the very beginning, with two books by Gary Greenberg, President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York. The first is 101 Myths of the Bible (Sourcebooks, paperback), subtitled 'How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History.' Greenberg examines Old Testament stories, reveals their contradictions and impossibilities, demonstrates how the Bible may not be -- in fact, almost certainly cannot be -- a literal record of history. It is, he argues, a document shaped by its creators, based in myth and folklore, and many of its most familiar events may not have happened. Noah's Ark, for example, probably didn't land on Mount Ararat; Sodom and Gomorrah did not actually exist; and it was King David's bodyguard, not David himself, who slew the giant Goliath. An illuminating reappraisal of the Bible.
In The Sins of King David (Sourcebooks, hardcover), Greenberg examines the Bible's conflicting stories about David -- one told by his allies, the other by his enemies -- and offers a new version of events. A blending of both Biblical accounts, the book questions the common image of David (as a pious and courageous man, 'history's first renaissance man,' a diplomat and a military strategist of uncommon gifts), offers compelling new evidence that changes our perceptions -- turns David, in essence, from a mythological figure into a living, breathing human being. Greenberg's not out to offend anyone; he just wants us to understand that the Biblical record of history is deeply contradictory, and heavily laced with myth and feats of great impossibility.
Moving onward through history, we have Albion (Chatto & Windus, hardcover), Peter Ackroyd's sterling history of the English people. Drawing on an impressive array of sources -- the bibliography is nearly fourteen pages long -- Ackroyd takes us deep into Britain's past and introduces us to some of the people who discovered, and later defined, what it is to be English. Here's the Venerable Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth; Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory; Edmund Spencer and Francis Bacon; William Shakespeare (of course) and Ben Jonson; here are the men and women who built England, and (skipping forward several centuries) those whose lives and works embody the modern evolution of 'the Anglo-Saxon style' -- people like T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, David Hockney. The book is, in Ackroyd's own words, 'diverse and various, digressive and heterogeneous, accumulative and eclectic, anecdotal and sensational.'
Let's pause for a moment in the fourteenth century, where Lorenzo Ghiberti, an Italian painter, was hoping to win the honor of creating the doors for the church of St. John the Baptist. But another artist, Filippo Brunelleschi, was also in contention. Ghilberti got the job, and Brunelleschi went on to revise the principles of architecture (he reinvented the art of perspective drawing). Years later, Paul Robert Walker tells us in The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance (Morrow, hardcover), the two artists again competed for an important commission; this time, Brunelleschi won, and his creation changed the world. Walker's chronicle of the two men, and the turbulent times in which they lives, is spellbinding.
Here's a nice little book: For Which It Stands: An Anecdotal Biography of the American Flag (Simon & Schuster), by Michael Corcoran. It's an appealing concept, telling the history of a country by concentrating on its most visible symbol, and the book is both educational and entertaining. Corcoran touches on pretty much everything you can think of: controversies surrounding the flag's design, alternate flag designs, the flag's role in war and peace, flag burning (and, by extension, censorship and freedom of expression), and much, much more. Interesting and, in places, surprising.
Orville and Wilbur Wright may be the most famous names in aviation, but, while they were making history at Kitty Hawk in 1903, another innovator was engineering a revolution in the quest for powered flight. His story is told in Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane (HarperCollins), by science and technology writer Seth Shulman. Five years after the Wright Brothers conducted their top-secret Kitty Hawk tests, Curtiss staged the first public flight in America, in an aircraft of his own design. Immediately the Wright Brothers took him to court, petitioning to keep Curtiss on the ground. They failed, of course, and the rivalry between the Wrights and Curtiss set in motion one of the world's greatest races: the race to conquer the air. It's a magnificently exciting story, breathlessly told by Shulman, who clearly knows (and loves) his subject.
On the subject of flight, we'll take a moment to look at Star Dust Falling: The Story of the Plane That Vanished (Penguin, hardcover), by Jay Rayner. In 1947, a plane flew through the Andes on its way to Chile. Somewhere, somehow, it disappeared, leaving behind a mysterious and confusing final message from its radio operator and a whole pile of questions. Did the plane crash, and, if so, how? Was it sabotage? Was there something on board the aircraft -- perhaps gold -- that someone wanted badly enough to bring the plane down? For more than half a century it was a mystery with no solution, until, in 2000, the wreckage of the Star Dust was found by a couple of mountain-climbers. Rayner relates the history of the Star Dust, her airline (a private concern with, shall we say, a very spotty safety record), and the people who died aboard her high in the Andes. Very moving.
Michael Beschloss, the American historian, is best known for his books about the American presidency. The latest is The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany 1941-1945 (Simon & Schuster, hardcover). It's the behind-the-scenes story of the end of World War Two, told in precise detail. It's a story of single-minded dedication to a seemingly unattainable goal (Roosevelt was determined to obtain Hitler's unconditional surrender), of determination in the face of staggering odds, of two men, Roosevelt and Truman, who wanted to ensure, once and for all, that Nazi Germany would never again be a threat to the world. Fans of in-depth historical analysis will love this one.
Like Beschloss, Stephen E. Ambrose is a familiar name; he's written a string of popular books, including Band of Brothers and several biographies of American presidents. In To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), Ambrose writes in broad strokes about the country he loves: its spirit, its strength in the face of adversity, its soul. He writes about the Founding Fathers, the transcontinental railroad, Teddy Roosevelt, racism. He writes, and this is what makes the book so compelling, about himself, about the adventures of an historian. (He writes, in other words, about writing about history.) It's about time this noted historian gave us something resembling an autobiography: it helps us put his many other books in a more personal context.
Fans of George F. Will's newspaper and magazine columns will be delighted with With a Happy Eye But ... America and the World 1997-2002 (The Free Press, hardcover), which collects five years worth of columns in one splendid volume. Here's Will on politics, sports, fashion, public figures, the media, political correctness, capitalism, parental responsibility, conservatism, war, peace, and everything in between. No matter whether you love him or hate him (there doesn't seem to be any in-between, with Will), you have to acknowledge his intelligence and literary skill. He's always a good read, and this book, his seventh collection of columns, is, as always, thought-provoking and challenging.
Also thought-provoking, but in a different way, is Sixteen Scandals: 20 Years of Sex, Lies and Other Habits of Our Great Leaders (Sourcebooks, hardcover), a modern history of presidential shenanigans by William Strauss and Elaina Newport. The authors, cofounders of the Capital Steps political-comedy troupe, a group of former congressional staffers who've seen it all, offer us fifty-two musical parodies (Livin' Libido Loco, Son of a Bush, Fun Fun Fun 'Til Teddy Puts His T-Shirt Away) and the stories of their creation. As if this weren't enough -- these are, after all, very funny song lyrics, with uproarious and politically-savvy origin stories -- the book comes with an audio CD containing all fifty-two songs, recorded live in concert. Capitol Steps has been performing since the mid-eighties, and this marvellous book contains some of their funniest material.
And here, for all the drivers on your list, is Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), a history of the Volkswagon Beetle by Phil Patton. It's a thoroughly engaging book, the story of a car designed by a fascist (the photo section contains Hitler's preliminary sketch of the Beetle), a car whose small size and ugliness were its strongest selling points, a car that, against all odds, became world-famous, a symbol for an entire segment of the planet's population. I love this book; its quirkiness and pop-culture sensibilities and wealth of information are enchanting.
Editor's Note: This is one of a series of articles on books, on a variety of subjects, as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.