Books make great Christmas gifts. No one ever complains they're the wrong size or color.
Great books reveal themselves when their audiences expand beyond their assigned pigeonholes. One time at a big box bookstore, after dividing and quartering the fiction sections for 20 minutes, I crawled on my hands and knees through a cardboard castle gate into the kiddie section, worried someone would think I had improper designs on the tiny tots gathered in the corner for their tea party, to find one of the early Harry Potter books, which were still relegated to the children's shelves.
Check out the online price of an original Peter Rabbit or Winnie the Pooh book sometime -- or a first printing of "The Philosopher's Stone" -- and tell me they're just for kids.
Publishers have long considered food books to be reliable sellers, figuring the percentage of us interested in either cooking or dining should be fairly large. But even here, some entries refuse to stay locked in the cookbook ghetto.
I suppose what motivated me to pick up Erin Byers Murray's "Shucked" (St. Martin's, 2011) was the sheer weirdness factor. Who on earth would write a 350-page book on oyster farming and expect me to read more than a page?
But the book, as you may have guessed, is a wonder because its topic isn't just some gnarly bivalve, but rather the ignorance of city softies about the combination of love and relentlessly backbreaking labor that go into creating the neat rows of produce, any and all of the produce, that we take for granted sitting all neat and sparkly on our supermarket shelves.
A 20-something Boston food and lifestyle writer, Murray convinced the rowdy crew at Island Creek Oysters on the bay in Duxbury to let her work for them for 18 months.
"On my first day, I stacked three crates onto the truck before I was gasping, arms aching as I lifted with my shoulders to get the crates waist high. ... My hands cramped. ... By day three, I couldn't lift my arms above my shoulders. The simple act of grasping the crate handle was excruciating." And she hadn't even gotten out on the water.
Murray succeeds in joining not only the Island Creek team but that small rank of writers whose next culinary adventure we await with anticipation.
I believe the most important book I've read recently is Adam Fergusson's "When Money Dies" (William Kimber, 1975 -- but now available in paperback from PublicAffairs), about the Weimar Republic's hyperinflation of 1922-23, its causes and aftereffects, which included not only the rise of Hitler and the other "We-was-betrayed" nationalists, but also a slightly more subtle and possibly more important disillusionment on the part of an entire populace with anything reminiscent of the top-hatted, aristocratic politicians of yesteryear.
The great hyperinflation also gave birth to a violent hatred of the "hoarders" who, having held onto some liquid assets, were able to buy their neighbors' furs and jewels for the price of a can of beans during the worst of the monetary disaster. (See if you can guess which religious group took most of that blame.)
Fortunately, having seen this devastating historical example of a government trying to inflate its way out of trouble through the endless printing of more and more intrinsically worthless fiat currency, our government in Washington today wouldn't be foolish enough to repeat the mistake. Right?
Military history can easily degenerate into dry catalogues of unit deployments, till sleeping pills are rendered unnecessary. But the best military history is, simply, history -- a story of largely self-interested men bending events to fit agendas that are not merely misrepresented, but which they themselves may never fully understand.
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson has completed the first two parts of his trilogy on the role of the American Army in the 1942-45 liberation of Europe: "An Army at Dawn" and "The Day of Battle."
Some writers stuff pages with their dry research in great clods, like someone in a hurry to chink a log cabin. But, at the opening of "The Day of Battle," Atkinson builds his account of the June 1942 Roosevelt-Churchill conference that led to the decision to invade Italy with such a delightful selection of detail that it's hard to believe you're not in the hands of a master of fiction.
When FDR, ever the inscrutable dilettante, shifts the scene of the conference from stifling Washington to the trout streams of restored colonial Williamsburg, John D. Rockefeller Jr. is appalled to learn that, due to wartime rationing, Churchill and the other visiting dignitaries may be served desserts made with inferior cream.
He promptly prepares a vast cauldron of Maryland terrapin -- a dish that must be simmered two days -- along with fresh ice cream with all the trimmings, assigns one overloaded butler to shove the works into overhead baggage compartments of the express to Washington, and assigns a limousine to meet the fellow at Union Station and convey both food and servingman to the tables of Williamsburg, where the take-out food was, of course, an enormous hit.
By which time I was, again, hooked on Mr. Atkinson's detail-rich, steamroller narrative. Buy first printings of this series, if you can, and protect the jackets in mylar; they'll appreciate.
Power-hungry governments allowed to exceed their delegated powers versus the ever-shrinking freedom of action of the citizen entrepreneur: We've known it was a growing problem for decades, but now we've started to see the paralyzing results in spades, right here in River City.
Judge Andrew P. Napolitano weighs in with another plainspoken attack on the statist excesses that are destroying the nation -- all under the guise of "compassion for the children," et al. -- in "It Is Dangerous to be Right When the Government is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom" (Thomas Nelson, 2011.) Highly recommended.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "The Ballad of Carl Drega." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.