A History of Britain: Volume II: The Wars of the British 1603-1776
by Simon Schama
Published by Talk Miramax Books
544 pages, 2001

If you're going to get someone to comprehensively tackle the long and convoluted history of Britain, Simon Schama is certainly the person to do it. A writer and presenter of documentaries for the BBC, Schama has variously taught history and art history at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard and is now a professor at Columbia. The award-winning 15-part documentary series based on his three volume history of Britain series of books is currently airing in North America on the History Channel and is also available on video. Those that have enjoyed the series will find the further study available with the book enlightening. But A History of Britain stands alone. In Volume II we move through the era of Cromwell, through the Restoration, to Britain's coming to terms with the awfulness of slavery and its growing inability to manage far-flung colonies. And though Schama's mandate with Volume II is 1603 to 1776, the author's gift is that he sees the connectedness of history and has the ability to bring it to -- sometimes shocking -- life for his readers.


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The Accidental President: How 413 Lawyers, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 5,963,110 Floridians (Give or Take a Few) Landed George W. Bush in the White House
by David A. Kaplan
Published by Morrow
336 pages, 2001

Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election
by Jeffrey Toobin
Published by Random House
304 pages, 2001

Perfect for those politics junkies on your gift list: two reportorial reassessments of the partisan maneuvering, dramatically "pregnant chads" and over-the-top legal machinations that eventually made George W. Bush the 43rd U.S. president, even though he lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore by a wide margin and (according to a recent study by major American newspapers) would also have lost a review of all the 175,000 overvotes and undervotes unread in Florida on Election Day 2000. Kaplan's The Accidental President is the more entertaining of these two volumes, casting a deservedly cynical light on the most controversial American presidential contest in 124 years (since Republican Rutherford B. Hayes squeaked by Samuel J. Tilden in another race that raised disturbing questions about Florida ballots). Kaplan, a Newsweek senior writer and author of The Silicon Boys (1999), tells how the U.S. Supreme Court, casting the final and most significant votes in this election, very nearly tipped it in Gore's favor; how the veep considered recruiting movie-portrayed reporter Erin Brockovich to help give him a last leg up to the White House; and who among Bush's minions was yanking the strings on Florida's unyielding secretary of state, Katherine Harris. The author is quite fair in his assessment of both camps, and fairly critical overall, making it clear just how fraught with folly the 2000 election really was. Toobin's Too Close to Call strives to be more insiderish, recasting the Gore-Bush bout as a legal thriller, transporting readers onto the private jet of Bush advocate James Baker, into a secret Supreme Court conference room and behind as many doors as he can find. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Toobin does his best work portraying the principal strategists in last year's political drama, and is more sober than Kaplan in his assessment of the legal wrangling that resulted in Bush's narrow victory. If you can stomach it, I recommend reading both of these books. Neither gives much insight into whether Bush -- who has so far shown himself capable of prosecuting a swift little war in Afghanistan, but far less able than his predecessor was at handing other matters of presidential concern, including the economy, environmental protection and the safeguarding of civil liberties -- will be thanked by historians for having won in 2000. But Kaplan and Toobin certainly make the case for concerted U.S. election reform. If, as a result of the last presidential race, those embarrassing faults in America's democratic system are plugged, then no matter who occupies the White House, the voters have won. -- J. Kingston Pierce


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A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal
by Anthony Bourdain
Published by Raincoast Books
274 pages, 2001

It's hard not to want to be Anthony Bourdain. Not only does he write like a demon, in his latest book, A Cook's Tour, he's managed to bag the perfect foody gig: he travels the world in search of the perfect meal. Japan, England, Vietnam, Russia, Scotland: everywhere, it seems, that the perfect meal might be found as well as a few places you wouldn't think it at all likely. Along the way, he grumbles mightily about the camera crew that accompanies his every move ("When I went to the bathroom, I would have to remember to turn off the little clip-on mike attached to the transmitter on my hip. I had, you see, sold my soul to the devil.") filming the Food Network special series that will, no doubt, go a long way to promoting the book. Predictably, the fifth book from the author of Kitchen Confidential is delicious and delightful. And the results of his quest? You'll have to take the trip with him to find out.


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Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation
by Joe Queenan
Published by Henry Holt and Company
211 pages, 2001

Is there a cranky Baby Boomer on your holiday shopping list? If so, they might enjoy wiseacre Joe Queenan's pithy rant on the ridiculous excesses and incessant navel-gazing of his loathsome peers. Queenan, a contributing editor at GQ known for his acerbic, lampooning, take-no-prisoners worldview, takes potshots at everyone from the late Victor Borge (dismissed as an "overbearing stooge") to Frank McCourt and The Gipsy Kings. Although much of this comes across as a teensy bit too petulant (although maybe that was his point), many passages are laugh-out-loud funny, especially the chapter titled "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" in which he riffs on the absurdity of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Experience Music Project. Place this one under the tree, right next to the overpriced balsamic vinegar gift pack. -- Pamela Patterson


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Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden
by Diane Ackerman
Published by HarperCollins
257 pages, 2001

Though her subjects vary widely, a book by Diane Ackerman is always a sensuous, sensitive delight. Ackerman, the author of A Natural History of the Senses and Deep Play, among others, tends to tackle her topics with a sense of wise poetry. This time, as the title suggests, Ackerman explores the relationship humans enjoy with the things they grow. The lens, this time, is her own garden, but anyone who enjoys the feel of soil under their hands or who has become an enthusiast of this author's work through earlier books will appreciate Cultivating Delight. And these are, after all, words to banish winter: "... the roses are blooming like racehorses hitting their stride, the animals are simply besotted with one another, insects rule the universe, and summer's petaled inferno is right around the corner." Delightful.


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Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age
by H. Paul Jeffers
Published by John Wiley & Sons

"Even ... in a city crammed with the rich and famous, everyone wanted to be near Diamond Jim," writes Jeffers in this eminently readable study of New York City's best-known bon vivant of the late 19th century. And people didn't just want to be near the man born as James Buchanan Brady; they wanted to imitate him, to read about his gourmandish escapades, to find in his corpulent shadow the good life that had so long been promised by the American Dream. A child of Manhattan's poorer quarters, Brady rose quickly in the world, thanks to both his gregarious nature and the assistance of one of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt's superintendents, who encountered Brady while the latter was serving as a hotel bellhop and thought the boy showed spunk. Brady went on to become a salesman nonpareil of railroad equipment and use his riches (as much as $12 million) to accumulate a trove of diamond-encrusted accouterments. If he surrounded himself with the trappings of wealth, he also achieved a girth to equal his affluence. Although a teetotaler, he showed restraint in no other culinary area, consuming 10-course meals without hesitation. (One New York restaurateur called Brady "the best twenty-five customers I ever had.") And frequently accompanying him at the table, as well as in the streets, was another flamboyant star of the Gilded Age: the actress Lillian Russell, who remained Diamond Jim's friend and the recipient of his largesse for much longer than she remained any other man's wife. The association between those two celebs has been recounted before -- in John Burke's exceptional 1972 history, Duet in Diamonds. But with that work now sadly out of print, Jeffers' Diamond Jim Brady ably picks up the slack, reminding us of the high life as defined between America's Civil War and World War I. Here, we read of Brady's many commercial and Wall Street enterprises, his hunger for everything that was new (he owned the first automobile in Manhattan) and much about the restaurants and other nightlife that made New York City so glamorous a century ago. Jeffers fills out the glittering legend of Diamond Jim almost as well and exuberantly as Brady filled out his own wardrobe. -- J. Kingston Pierce


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Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
by Carl Zimmer
Published by HarperCollins
364 pages, 2001

Boiling a complex idea or set of ideas down to a stew straightforward enough that even a bright child can follow and an educated adult will not be bored is no easy feat. Look how many, after all, have tried and failed. In Evolution, a companion book to the PBS series of the same name, Carl Zimmer succeeds quite beautifully. Well researched, produced, illustrated and executed, Evolution tackles an incredibly broad and detailed topic and breaks it down into understandable components. And yet, even those who feel they know a thing or two about Zimmer's topic here will find rich details that surprise and delight. A former senior editor at Discover, Zimmer is the author of At the Water's Edge and Parasite Rex.


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If We Had Wings: The Enduring Dream of Flight
By Rinker Buck
Published by Crown
2001, 32 pages plus inserts

This is the book that would have just about anybody wanting to flip though it for hours on end. Even if you are not an aeronautical aficionado, you can't help but be fascinated by this lovely and elegantly produced book. A pilot himself -- the youngest aviator, at fifteen along with his 17-year-old brother, ever to fly the U.S. coast to coast -- author Rinker Buck brings passion to the subject of man's past and continuing infatuation with the need to soar with the birds. While If We Had Wings is not an in-depth look at the history of flight, it does touch on the brighter highlights of its history: The Wright brothers of course, barnstormers, Charles Lindbergh's epic flight, Amelia Earhart, right up to man landing on the moon. Even though we are well versed in these now well known historical events -- with Buck throwing in a tidbit or two you may not have learned in school -- the real appeal of If We Had Wings is the book itself. At only 32 pages it is stuffed with things that give you the same kind of guilty pleasure as reading through someone's diary. Reproductions of letters -- in envelopes -- and documents of everything from Wilbur Wright 's correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution "I am an enthusiast, but not a crank... I believe that simple flight is at last possible." A prisoner of war letter to a friend from Mutiny on the Bounty author James Hall, a brochure and luggage stickers (they really stick too) from the early 20th century and, one of my favorites, a cardboard identification wheel used by airmen during the second world war to help recognize enemy aircraft at a glance by the plane's silhouette. This one I'm giving as a present to myself, thanks.


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National Geographic Peoples of the World
introduction by David Maybury-Lewis
afterword by Wade Davis
Published by National Geographic
304 pages, 2001

If nothing else, National Geographic's timing on Peoples of the World is faultless. At a time when our world seems to be in conflict at least in part due to misunderstandings between cultures and religions, it seems a good idea to take stock, once again, and examine cultures we know little about. At its core, Peoples of the World is pure and classic National Geographic. Vivid, compelling photos. Expert and interesting text. A coffee table book, Peoples of the World includes over 200 color photographs and 30 maps. This strikes one as an especially wonderful book to pour over with our offspring. To share with them the superb differences that make up our planet and, through that exploration, to discover our commonalties. As anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis writes in his introduction: "It is important ... to understand how and why ... uncertainties may lead people in different parts of the world into ethnic conflict, and equally to understand that such conflicts are neither inevitable nor primordial." That's a message to share.


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On Great White Wings: The Wright Brothers Race for Flight
by Fred E.C. Culick and Spencer Dunmore
Published by McArthur and Company
176 pages, 2001

It's difficult to imagine that the Wright Brothers' landmark flight was less than 100 years ago. It occurred on December 17, 1903 and lasted only 12 seconds but, as authors Culick and Dunmore point out in On Great White Wings, that flight "changed the world forever." If White Wings is a little over the top, the authors can be forgiven their passion: This is the closest look we've had at the two airbound brothers, as well as probably the best illustrated, with diagrams, charts, as well as historic and modern photographs. The aviation buffs on your list will drool.


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The Quantum and the Lotus
by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan
Published by Crown
312 pages, 2001

This is the book Deepak Chopra must wish he'd written. As the subtitle tells us, it's "A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet." Written in interview style, it is a dialog between two friends: the authors, Trinh Xuan Thuan, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who resides at the Shechen monastery in Nepal. Originally published in the French in 2000 as L'Infini dans la Paume de la Main, The Quantum and the Lotus is not a theological argument, but rather a joyous exploration of the places where the ideals of both fields intersect.


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Quest for the Cup: A History of the Stanley Cup Finals 1893-2001
edited by Jack Falla
written by Jack Batten, Lance Hornby, George Johnson and Steve Milton
Published by Key Porter Books
304 pages, 2001

There seems to be a recipe for success for the definitive book on hockey's historic Stanley Cup: Assemble a team of hotshot sports writers and promise them a production worthy of their effort. Writers who, given half a chance, will bring all of their knowledge and passion to the project. And, if the circumstances are right, said writers will wax poetic on their topic. "Ultimately," writes editor Jack Falla, "the Stanley Cup is important because it connects us to the game we love -- and, thus, to each other." Quest for the Cup is a large, handsome book suitable for showing off on a coffee table. With over 350 photos -- in both color and black and white -- the book is as well illustrated as it is written. A truly beautiful book that hockey fans will... well... compete for.


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Survivors in Armor
by Ronald Orenstein
Published by Key Porter
304 pages, 2001

Have you ever wondered about the difference between turtles, tortoises and terrapins? Or thought about how a turtle shell is constructed? Or how a turtle breathes? How about evolution. They seem so primitive but have they evolved? What kind of turtles are there and what do they eat? How long, actually, do they live? Ronald Orenstein, a zoologist, lawyer and project director for the International Wildlife Coalition answers all of these questions in Survivors in Armor and he does it without seeming to pause for breath. It's difficult to imagine a layman accessible book on turtles more comprehensive in scope and more complete in look and nature. Large in format and range, and beautifully illustrated, Survivors in Armor is the definitive guide to all things to do with the Order Testudine.


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Travels With My Daughter
by Niema Ash
Published by Dundurn
296 pages, 2001

Travels With My Daughter is a very weird book. From the beginning it reads like a celebrity biography, except, of course that author Niema Ash is no one you've probably ever heard of. You'll have heard of some of the people she parties with in Travels With My Daughter, though: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney, Irving Layton and others all run amok at various points on Ash's road. The author sometimes comes off like a flower child-hippy-groupie as she looks back on her travels both before her daughter was born in the 1960s and after. "The road was my university, my church, my true love." The message Ash wishes to convey is that "motherhood need not be the end to travel and adventure," although we also hear about Ash and her daughter Ronit, 15 at the time, smoking hash together in Marrakech (where else?) where they were nearly busted by the local police; we discover Leonard Cohen's sexual dysfunction and Ash's sexual function with a Moroccan antique dealer. All of this sounds almost too Absolutely Fabulous to be borne, doesn't it darlings? And yet, Ash -- also the author of the well-loved Touching Tibet -- brings it all off with such panache it's not only tough to put down, you can almost feel Ash's folksy road beneath your feet.


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