by Molly Ivins
it resolved that we will be found from now until quite late on Christmas Eve solving all our Christmas shopping problems at the best one-stop shop in town, the bookstore -- preferably a local bookstore.
I firmly believe it is well worth going out of one's way to shop at an independent bookstore. The importance of independent bookstores to a healthy culture is not to be overestimated, but if an independent is not available, all the chains now have fancy coffee.
Then, of course, for the eternal procrastinator comes the problem of having bought a book for a loved one in Alaska two days before Christmas. You can always take them and dump them at one of those places that specializes in shipping things -- this costs only a small fortune -- but I believe the better part of valor is to carefully train your loved ones never to expect anything before Valentine's Day. This adds a piquant element of surprise to their dull February days.
We have an impressive array of public-affairs books for the thoughtful citizen to choose from this year, starting with two who were not afraid to tackle A Big Subject, as well as some fine novels and excellent Texana.
"Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century" by Jonathan Glover (Yale University Press) is just what it sounds like: an ambitious attempt to understand how we could have done this to ourselves. Why these atrocities? In case you think that's the most depressing book you ever heard of, I know someone who is writing on genocide through the ages. Besides, Glover has enough sense to pay attention to the exceptions as well as the rules -- why did the Danes do such a remarkable job of saving Jews during World War II?
Physicians try to understand the causes of human diseases, and so does Glover. Glover goes easily from the practical -- the psychological remoteness of soldiers from ordinary life -- to the similarities in the history of downward moral spirals -- all the old arguments about the ends and the means, the difficulty of breaking through tribal identities, the gradual erosion of restraint.
It's not cheerful, but it is fascinating, and certainly despair is not the answer. The slow growth of international law holds hope, but Glover in the end prefers the solutions of psychology, of training political and personal moral imagination to recognize cruelty.
"Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton) has already won the Pulitzer Prize and is out in paperback. Diamond, a scientist, is engaged in history-from-a-different-viewpoint -- specifically, the application of a great variety of scientific knowledge to the question of why human societies are so different from one another.
Why does someone born in Papua, New Guinea, or Rwanda have such a radically different life from a Canadian or a Swede? And what happens, as now, when the societies come into ever greater proximity? Unlike most economics-based histories, "Guns, Germs and Steel" has a remarkably wide scope about differing cultures.
"The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests and the Betrayal of Public Trust" by John B. Judis is a relatively narrow-focus study of where we are in American politics. The beauty of the mandatory subtitle in nonfiction these days is that it almost eliminates the need for book reviews.
You know the subject matter -- now all you need to know is that Judis is a good guy and a good writer with a killer instinct for happy hype. I found the total effect far less "Whew, we're going to be all right" than "Holy hail, let's get to work now."
Novels: For any intelligent woman of a certain age, Gloria Emerson's "Loving Graham Greene" (Random House) is a special treat -- funny, but not mean about American idealism and its oddities.
"Blue Ridge" by T.R. Pearson (Viking), a lovely writer, could be a mystery or a Southern novel or just about people. It's a honey of a read.
What a rich year for Texana it's been. I should explain that I am not recommending books by friends, but most Texas writers are friends of mine simply by virtue of my having been around so long.
Stephen Harrigan's "The Gates of the Alamo" (Knopf) has been widely praised as the almost unthinkable -- a fresh look at the Alamo. Harrigan's scholarship goes well beyond what he calls the Revised Standard Version, the debunking that got most of us past the enough-to-gag-a-maggot hyper-adulation on which we were raised.
Even the Revised Standard Version (Sam Houston told those fools to get out of there) is not adequate to the debunking needs of this case, but it is still, after all, one great story.
"Cherry" by Mary Karr (Viking) is the second volume by the memoirist from the Golden Triangle -- living proof that you can grow up absolutely anywhere and still get literary material from it. This book is about being a female adolescent, a horrible fate; the best that can be said of it is that one does recover.
The extraordinary thing about Karr, in addition to the poetry of her writing, is her stunning honesty. She calls it "writing without dignity," without the self-delusions that we all use in the endless struggle to think better of ourselves. Absolute honesty, like all surprises, makes people laugh.
For the all-purpose coffee-table book gift (covers entire families and couples of disparate tastes), I recommend a lovely book of photo essays by Rick Williams, "Working Hands" (Texas A&M University Press). Cowboys and roughnecks, sure, but high-tech workers and scientists, too. A lovely book of modern Texas.
December 21, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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