A Mother Lode of Tempting Titles for the Literary Father
By Scott Holleran
Surely, there are dads whose interests rarely wander beyond ESPN and whatever gadget’s on sale. There is also another type of father figure: Dad the reader.
For him, the best gifts may be two recent books about great men. The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time by Will Durant (compiled and edited by John Little, Simon & Schuster; $20) is a 118-page treasure. Among the chapters by the famed historian are: Ten Greatest Thinkers, 100 Best Books for an Education and A Shameless Worship of Heroes.
The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time begins with editor Little quoting Durant, a Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, during an interview – conducted with his wife and writing partner, Ariel – at their home in the Hollywood Hills. When asked about Karl Marx’s role in 20th-century history, Durant instead cites creators like Edison and Darwin and he observes that “the basic phenomenon of our time is not communism; it’s the decline of religious belief.”
When the author of The Story of Civilization is asked the person he most would like to have known, Durant answers: Madame De Pompadour. The interviewer is astonished when Durant explains, “She was beautiful, she was charming, she was luscious – what else do you want?” The Greatest Minds is filled with what Little describes as Durant’s celebration of “… the splendor of our intellectual and artistic heritage.”
Literary dads are also likely to find wisdom in Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill (Ballantine; $22.95), which isn’t as confused as it sounds. Written by Gretchen Rubin, Forty Ways offers a spectrum of views: heroic, critical and, finally, Rubin’s judgment, in which she recalls Churchill’s declaration in the face of Nazi attack: “We shall never surrender.”
Paying homage to Churchill’s defiant words, Rubin writes: “Flags snap in the breeze, and Roosevelt’s wheelchair creaks its way across the deck, and Churchill leads everyone, Britons and Americans together, in singing. In all his long history he will never see a greater day than this. Tears are running down his cheeks, tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration. This isn’t everyone’s Churchill, but it’s my Churchill.”
If those two books don’t fit the bill, three works by history professor James S. Olson offer a voice of reason on some sensitive subjects. Olson’s John Wayne, American, (written with Randy Roberts, Free Press; $32.50), is a thoroughly researched account of the legendary actor, whose movies are a favorite Father’s Day gift.
Olson evaluates the Duke objectively, from his Golden Boy youth in Glendale to his abilities as an artist to his controversial politics, and what emerges is an honest and favorable appraisal. Olson strikes the same even tone in A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, (also written with Roberts, Free Press; $26), which puts America’s momentous military defeat into context.
Olson’s most recent book, Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer and History, (Johns Hopkins University Press; $24.95), focuses on a deeply personal topic with compelling results. Through Olson’s powerful narrative – the author lost his left hand and forearm to cancer while writing Bathsheba’s Breast – the reader bears witness to the heroic stories of countless women, including Louis XIV’s mother, John Adams’ only daughter and former first lady Betty Ford. For fathers, husbands and sons, Olson’s breast cancer history presents a fresh and original perspective.
For cable news junkies, the timely Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by historian Michael B. Oren (Ballantine; $16.95) provides a straightforward analysis of the Six Day War, in which Israel’s Arab neighbor-nations united against the Jewish state and lost.
“Rarely in modern times has so short and localized a conflict had such prolonged, global consequences,” Oren writes. Taking a tactful approach, Oren rattles off the legacy of the Six Day War: the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Munich Olympics massacre, Black September, and the Camp David and Oslo Accords. Oren’s book reads like a Mideast primer, putting younger faces on familiar names – and reminding readers about causal connections.
Oren’s opening chapter, describing a New Year’s Eve 1964 terrorist operation, is an eerie preamble to today’s headlines: “The leader of al-Fatah, a 35-year-old former engineer from Gaza named Yasser Arafat, issues a victorious communique extolling … the duty of Jihad (holy war) and … the dreams of revolutionary Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf.”
Few dads will be able to resist the nostalgic fun of Airlines Remembered (Midland Publishing; $ 24.95) by B.I. Hengi. From Braniff to Pan Am and ValuJet, each bygone airline is carefully chronicled from its inception to its cease of operations, complete with color photographs, important dates and routes, aircrafts used and types of aviation service.
Though occasionally skimpy on the facts – financially devastating plane crashes such as Pan Am 103 in 1988 are scarcely mentioned – there are bound to be a few of dad’s childhood favorites among the colorful pages.
Dads who like to read to the kids – or to the grandchildren – might like to have the colorful You and Your Dad (Whispering Coyote Press; $14.95) by Lou Alpert (a writer, artist and mother of seven). Alpert’s cheerful rhymes overcome the limitations of her plain illustrations: “What kind of dad spends time with you?/ Where does he work? What does he do?/ Does he work in an office that reaches the sky?/ Does he wear overalls or a coat and a tie?”
Roger Rueff shares Fifty Things I Want My Son to Know (Andrews McMeel; $9.95), which isn’t always as sappy as it sounds. Among the highlights is Thing 32: “That he needs no one’s approval. Not even mine.”
Originally published in the June 12, 2003 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News.