Merry Christmas and good reading

Posted: Dec 22, 2004 12:00 AM

If you're like me, you still haven't finished your holiday shopping. So here are my suggestions for some good books you should be able to find at your favorite bookstore. And you might even pick up a copy of one or two for yourself.

 Can't figure out what to give cousin Bob, who spent the entire election haranguing you about America's loss of respect in the world since George W. Bush became president? "Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France," (Doubleday) by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky is the perfect gift. Not only is it lively and informative, but it can't be easily dismissed as just another know-nothing diatribe. Molesky earned his Ph.D. in history from Harvard and now teaches at Seton Hall; while Miller, political reporter for National Review, also writes frequently for publications from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to Reader's Digest.

 The authors detail French perfidy from the French and Indian Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, when France used orchestrated massacres of American colonials to settle its land disputes with England, to the wildly popular French conspiracy theories following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Miller and Molesky describe one French best-seller, "L'Effroyable" (The Big Lie), which actually accused American officials of masterminding the attack on the World Trade Center. Why should we care what such people think of us?

 Now, if you want to subtly get under the skin of some of your multiculturalist friends or peacenik relatives, let me recommend giving them Arthur Herman's "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World" (HarperCollins). Herman is best-known for the best-selling "How the Scots Invented the Modern World"; and, once again, he demonstrates how much we owe the people of the British Isles. We can thank the British Navy for putting an end not only to piracy but the slave trade and for advancing science from Darwin's voyage on the Beagle to Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole. And, according to Herman, if the U.S. Army had listened more carefully to the British admiral who actually planned the D-Day invasion, we might have avoided the slaughter on Omaha Beach.

 For those on your gift list who prefer fiction, I have a couple of novels to recommend. Anchee Min's "Empress Orchid" (Houghton Mifflin) is a fascinating historical novel about the woman who gave birth to China's last emperor in the 19th century. Min weaves a delicate literary tapestry from the life of Tzu Hsi, a poverty-stricken provincial girl who at 17 becomes one of the many wives of China's ruling Ch'ing Dynasty emperor. While less overtly political than Min's stunning memoir of life during China's Cultural Revolution, "Red Azalea," or her fictionalized biography "Becoming Madame Mao" (both also worth checking out), "Empress Orchid" provides insight into Chinese history and culture that made China fertile ground for Maoist-style totalitarianism. Unlike Arthur Golden's vapid "Memoirs of a Geisha," Min's novel will inform as well as entertain.

 Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" (Mariner Books) is the first novel by the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the short story collection "Interpreter of Maladies." I love stories about immigrants trying to make their way in the new, sometimes unsettling world of the United States, and Lahiri has certainly captured the universal difficulties of first and second-generation Americans, in this case an Indian family living in the academic community of Cambridge, Mass.

 Finally, if you want the perfect prophylactic for Steven Soderbergh's upcoming film "Che," about the 1960s Argentinean revolutionary and Castro sidekick Che Guevara, buy a copy of Carlos Eire's memoir, "Waiting for Snow in Havana" (Free Press). Eire was one of thousands of Cuban children who came to America as unaccompanied minors in Operation Pedro Pan during the 1960s. Eire manages to make you laugh out loud even against the backdrop of Castro's reign of terror. "Waiting for Snow in Havana" reads more like a children's picaresque than the usual autobiography, but it's a great tale and a reminder of why so many people continue to risk their lives to escape Cuba.

 Merry Christmas and good reading.

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