From The American Spectator‘s December 2007-January 2008 issue: Part IV of our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
Brave Men by Ernie Pyle. I did not know about Ernie Pyle when I first went to Iraq and began posting my observations and photographs on a blog. But almost from the beginning readers commented on similarities in our work, and when I acknowledged that I had not read his work, a thoughtful reader sent a first edition hard copy of Pyle’s Brave Men to me. After a few pages I knew the comparisons were wrong. Pyle had no equal or contemporary then and he certainly doesn’t now, although it humbles and flatters me whenever someone suggests my work reminds them of Pyle’s incredible columns. His insights into the minds of combat and his wry observations of what they experience so close to danger and so far from home are timeless. But as more and more of the “Greatest Generation” pass, Pyle’s work becomes increasingly important because it also captures the spirit of that time, that war, and the men and women who fought it.
We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by Joe Galloway and General Hal Moore. This book has received enough accolades and awards to more than amply convey the quality with which it was crafted. Galloway writes with such passion and precision that the resulting text is vividly detailed, giving the reader the closest experience to combat next to being there, including that of seeing it on film. It’s a long read, but it is over too soon, because it is next to impossible to put the book down. It is also impossible to ever walk away from it completely. Like combat, it leaves a mark on all who pass through it.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. This was mandatory reading for anyone who was planning to work with LTC Erik Kurilla, commander of the Deuce Four platoon with which I was embedded for nearly seven months in 2005. When I was handed a paperback copy of this book, it felt at first like assigned reading. The language was denser and more flowery than is my usual taste. But given a few hours uninterrupted by a combat mission, the powerful lure of the story itself took hold. It is more than an historical account of the Battle at Thermopylae; it is the manifest of the warrior’s code and a testimony to the timeless power of a human soul whose truest essence is revealed in the sacrifice of mortal life for honor, country, and duty.
Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain. Anything by Mark Twain is better than just about everything from everyone else. In fiction and nonfiction, his voice is pitched so wryly yet it maintains all the earnest, big-hearted (if ham-handed) notes that make it so readily identified as “American.” Never has the American character been so affectionately hoisted on its own collective petard, and yet somehow Twain’s stories and writings always reveal the best potential in every one of us. His travelogues are fascinating. He has prejudices that might seem dated, but in my experience they are just as powerful today filtering the perceptions of Americans abroad as they were when first published. My recent visits to many of the places he wrote about confirmed how amazingly accurate and uncanny his observations were of the places he visited and the people he encountered there. Not to mention he is one of the few writers who can always make me laugh out loud.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. This book, in the hands of a boy, will create an urge for travel and adventure that will never be satisfied, not even by the real thing, which in my experience always pales in comparison to just about anything Stevenson wrote. Give it to someone who thinks his own boyhood is a distant memory; it will be the fork that tells if the imagination has been cooked to leather, or if there is any pulse of life remaining. Until I read it again just a few years ago, I had not really noticed how astute a judge of character Stevenson is, especially perceptive on the dynamic between evil and weak, and the crippling grip with which the fear of the unknown holds so many people.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Speaking of the polarity of evil and weak strains, this first book intended as a nonfiction novel also remains one of the best in that genre (and there is one now, thanks to Capote). It is also one of the best true crime stories I’ve ever read. The way in which Capote uses his prodigious storytelling skills to flesh out the drama and tension of actual events elevates the experience and gives it meaning in a larger context. So we remember Perry with his bum knees and warped sense of chivalry, putting a pillow under the head of a man whose throat he’s about to cut and blasting a teenage girl’s brains into her pillow before his associate can ” bust her.” Capote is so good, in fact, that few who read this will be able to forget a hundred small but telling details about those few hours when evil visited a Kansas farmhouse.
Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. I was a rocket boy, but it wasn’t Sputnik over the Appalachian coal mining town that spurred me and my friends to blow things up — it was Apollo rockets launching close by! But more than just a well-written book about his adolescence and real coming of age, Hickam’s book is a testimony to the unrestrainable force of curious minds and the incredible power of good teachers to channel it in safe and productive directions. Hickam’s book reflects on the difficulty inherent in taking a really different path from that traveled by family and friends, and as such it is a navigation guide for any young person on the edge of his or her own life, and perhaps a source of consolation for the family and friends about to be left behind.
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. In my extensive travels around the world, I have seen the power of myth. It’s not just odd tales that form points of common reference in ancient history. It is out there right now shaping lives and increasingly determining deaths. This book is like the PBS series: a collection of conversations that range across all of human experience in search of the themes around which people gravitate. As a whole it is almost overwhelming in scope, but each chapter can also stand alone, and because of that it is a book that will be (or should be) revisited often over a lifetime.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I wasn’t expecting to like this book when I first got it. I fully intended to read it, as I am fascinated by words and their meaning. I was thinking it would be like any other of the hundreds of dry reference books I’ve collected over the years: a clinical history of the compilation of a major dictionary. I was genuinely surprised when it turned out to be a real page-turner with more drama, plot, and character development than most fiction books. This is not only a good book for people who are fascinated by words, it is just a really good book, period.
The Trembling Mountain: A Personal Account of Kuru, Cannibals, and Mad Cow Disease by Robert Klitzman, M.D. I am often frustrated trying to explain the groupthink that distinguishes tribal cultures from ours. Klitzman does it better than almost anyone I’ve ever read in this book detailing his experiences as a medical researcher living among the Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea. I came to this book when I was researching cannibal cultures, but I came away from reading it with much more than I expected. To anyone who has come up against the glass wall of magical thinking, Klitzman’s telling of how tribal leaders built their own airstrips in order to make the planes that drop all the boxes of supplies reappear in the sky will provoke a grin and groan of familiarity. Especially when he goes on to describe their ongoing efforts to pry from him the magic incantations they were obviously lacking from any white person they encountered.
The Collected Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Someday I will write about India. But until I do, readers will have to rely on Kipling for communicating the utter essence of the place. Kipling’s stories also capture the dissonance of the experience of India for Westerners, even when they themselves have failed to recognize it. All his stories resonate with some aspect of Indian sensibility, but my favorite is ” The Man Who Would Be King,” which is a cautionary tale about crossing borders without really knowing the terrain. In this story, Westerners intent on using the locals’ magical thinking to their own advantage discover that more than technology separates some cultures.
Michael Yon, author of Danger Close, is an independent writer and photographer whose dispatches about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are published at his online magazine: www.michaelyon-online.com. The former Green Beret was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005 and returned to Iraq in 2007 to continue reporting on the war.
These Christmas Book recommendations appear in the December 2007-January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. This concludes this year’s list. For earlier installments, click here, here and here.
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