So many books, so little time. I remember reading that the late, great Welsh minister, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, used to enjoy his sea voyage to America if not for anything else, to enjoy uninterrupted reading. You and I may not be able to have a week-long cruise, but through the gift of vacation, many of us may taste the delight of savoring some pages for uninterrupted hours, whether pages of that vintage wonder called “paper” (my preference, though I have the other kinds) or the ubiquitous iPad or Kindle or other device. What to read? I will skip the more popular offerings (except for the first one), and go to volumes that may surprise you. I have a friend who said, “The next book I read, I want it to ‘astonish’ me.” I am not sure I any of these books will meet that lofty urge of my beloved well-read friend, but perhaps there is one low hanging summer peach among these groves that will mark a time, an encounter with a new friend. Sometimes that can be, if not astonishing, at least satisfying and interesting. I found each of them absorbing in their own way.
So here is the list. I will share them in four posts of three recommendations representing four genre, beginning with non fiction. Now, I admit that these are military focused, but the subjects offer, I think, a rather universal appeal.
Washington: A Life by Rob Chernow (The Penguin Press HC, 2010)—I have rarely enjoyed a book like this one. This is now the magisterial work on the father of our country. Chernow, however, goes beyond creating a definitive non-fiction work, he writes with satisfying prose, and his own personal insights and reflections into the Stoical yet emotional, childless yet father to many, solitary yet public Cincinnatus; truly the Father of the United States of America.
Crusade in Europe: A Personal Account of World War II by Dwight D. Eisenhower (Garden City Books, 1951 edition)—With the many works on WWII one can easily overlook the tremendous works that appeared immediately after the great conflict. None, with the exception of Churchill, surpasses this work for bringing us into the inside conflicts, strategies, personalities, terror, courage and fear that creates the regrettable drama of war. Eisenhower wrote this book without a ghost-writer and, indeed, the personality of the Allied Supreme Commander comes through naturally and even unforgettably. The book, like the Midwesterner from Abilene, Kansas who penned it, is marked by orderliness, clarity, reserve where reserve is the better part of wisdom, and directness when nothing less than directness is needed. I found him forgiving of the native eccentricities of, say, General Montgomery, or General Patton. His response to criticism of why he did not cross the Elba and beat the Russians into Berlin, a common question that has birthed dissertations, is convincing and reasonable. I commend this book without hesitation. There are some good deals out there for first editions too. It is a modern memoir classic.
Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot by Starr Smith (Zenith Press, 2006)—I could not put this book down. Alright, then, let me give my full disclosure: I am a huge Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) fan. His photograph hangs in our home. Yes, it is that iconoclastic. OK. Granted. But the story of the all-American boy from Stewart’s Hardware in Indiana, Pennsylvania, who enlisted in the US Army as a private and departed a colonel and war hero is one of the great stories of this great land. If you are like me, as you read you will hear the unmistakable cadence of James Stewart’s unforgettable manner of speech coming through as he steers his B-24 out of the East Anglia fog, across the Channel, through the frightening blasts of German flak; or, squirming during of a chewing-out by a General for buzzing an air control tower for fun. You will read about the man who has been called the greatest actor of the Golden Era of Hollywood leading his men, and giving his men, his God and his Country (and our allies) his all. The book is written by an intelligence office who served with Stewart in the Eighth Air Force, 1943-44, in England. The story that continues after the war, though his return to Hollywood, marriage to his wife, the Vietnam years and the loss of his step son in that war all the way through to Gloria’s death. The book concludes as Stewart enters his twilight years at his home and at length passes from this world. This book is a moving tribute to a true American hero. As I read this book I thought about the remark that Irene Dunne made after reading Marlene Dietrich’s memoirs. She said something to the effect that she would never need to write her memoirs because she only had one husband, one house, one child, she didn’t drink, she was a devout Christian, and she never had lovers. This, too, is the story of not only a great actor who fought gallantly and honorably in the Second World War, it is really an American story about a small town, Scottish-Presbyterian boy from Western Pennsylvania who became larger than life on the silver screen, but whose biography is filled, not with Hollywood scandal, but integrity and devotion in the wild blue yonder. Reading and enjoying this book helps us to see that those are really the best stories after all.