December 13, 2012

Head to Head: Ho! Ho! Ho! Here are our literary gift ideas

The Issue: With just 12 days left before Christmas, you could give that friend or family member a garish tie or a basket of cheese. But as gifts go, it's hard to beat a great book. For the third year, Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez offer their suggestions.

The Issue: With just 12 days left before Christmas, you could give that friend or family member a garish tie or a basket of cheese. But as gifts go, it's hard to beat a great book. For the third year, Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez offer their suggestions.

Pia Lopez: Intrigue and statesmanship

For lovers of historical fiction, I'm recommending Michael Ennis' "The Malice of Fortune." This art historian turned novelist draws on the "most notorious crime of the Renaissance" – the murder of one of the illegitimate sons of Pope Alexander VI – to weave a mystery.

Set in Italy in 1502, then a "morass of political treachery and chaos," Ennis builds on a coincidence of history. Two giants of the Renaissance, artist engineer Leonardo da Vinci and diplomat theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, were in Rome at the time. In Ennis' telling, they team up with the mistress of the murdered man to solve the crime.

Between Leonardo's study of the order of nature for his art and Machiavelli's study of human behavior and history, "fortune" is not quite what it seems. Mix in papal corruption, mercenaries, incest, witchcraft, drug-induced hallucinations and you have a page-turner.

Turning to the real world of statecraft in these times of turmoil and polarization – and the difference individual leaders can make – I am urging people to look anew at South African Nelson Mandela's 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."

At age 94, Mandela is increasingly frail, but he still stands tall as one of the giants of our time. Remarkably free of bitterness after serving 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid, Mandela took bold steps to negotiate peaceful constitutional change with the white government at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war and, after serving one term as South Africa's first democratically elected president, turned over power on a continent that has too many self-appointed presidents for life.

Mandela remains an inspiration where conflict seems intractable and people despair of resolution.

And that brings me to veteran journalist Patrick Tyler's controversial new book, "Fortress Israel." Tyler concludes that "Israel, six decades after its founding, remains a nation in thrall to an original martial impulse, the depth of which has given rise to succeeding generations of leaders who are stunted in their capacity to wield or sustain diplomacy as a rival to military strategy"

Tyler makes a pitch for Israel to undergo a transformation as sweeping as the Arab Spring – "one dedicated to rebuilding the strategic consensus for peace and accommodation that existed under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin." His account leaves us with the important question: Could things in the Middle East be different with the right leadership in Israel? Light reading for the holidays.

Ben Boychuk: Dystopia and wonder

It's been a tough year for conservatives. Personally, I'd like to forget the election, take a break from day-to-day politics, and get lost in some fiction.

In the spirit of the giving season, might I recommend a bit of the old 20th-century dystopian literature?

I'm semi-serious. Norton this year published a 50th anniversary edition of Anthony Burgess' great anti-authoritarian novella, "A Clockwork Orange." The book is a "restored text," combining the first British and American editions, and includes extensive notes and facsimile pages of the original typescript. If you've never read Burgess before, this makes a fine introduction. But if you have read "Clockwork," this edition is a fresh take.

For readers still sore about the November election results, I'd prescribe Charles Kesler's "I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism." I'll admit the subtitle might appear a little out of step. Liberalism in crisis? At its moment of triumph?

Well, yes. Too much ambition and too little money spells disaster for liberalism and for the country. Kesler, who was my boss at the Claremont Review of Books years ago, examines Obama in the intellectual context of the last 100 years. Turns out, this president really does have something in common with Franklin Roosevelt. But you need to read the book to find out what it is.

But if you're looking for more red meat about Obama's Kenyan roots or new revelations about his birth certificate, Kesler won't satisfy.

"Conservatives, of all people," Kesler writes, "should know to beware instant gratification, especially when it comes wrapped in a conspiracy theory."

Finally, something for the kids. Dreamworks Animation last month released "The Rise of the Guardians." The film was based loosely on William Joyce's "Guardians of Childhood" series, which reimagines the origins of such cherished childhood characters as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Man in the Moon.

Alas, the movie bombed. But that shouldn't discourage parents from sharing and reading these wonderful books with their children.

My son, who at age 10 has rarely encountered a cartoon, comic, or video game he didn't like, made me proud when we left the multiplex.

"The movie was good, I guess," he said. "But the books are way better." Certainly they are richer and more sophisticated than Hollywood's 3-D spectacle.

Joyce's third installment, "Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies," appeared in October. The first three chapter books are also available in a nice boxed set. I really can't recommend them highly enough.

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