To buy affordable holiday gifts for men past the age of 30 can be difficult. When confronted with men who have slogged into their 40s, the task becomes formidable indeed. Givers can always wrap up some gifts that certain men will usefully employ — the Hickory Farms package of mustards and cheese, a bottle of Wild Turkey, the latest bit of techno-bling — but these gifts often generate as much excitement as the proverbial tie that was once the staple present for Father’s Day.
Give a man a book, however, and you offer him not another 4,000 calories to add to his holiday waistline nor some stupefying gizmo with beeps and buzzing. No — give a man a book, and you give him a key to a different world, a ticket to another life however briefly enjoyed, a chance both to escape his own troubles and to find in that escape some possible inspiration to return and confront those troubles.
Robert Girardi’s Gorgeous East (ISBN 978-0-312-56586-2, 2009, $24.99) whisks the reader, along with the novel’s main character, the American John Smith, out of his normal routine straight into the modern-day French Foreign Legion. Down and out in Paris, with scarcely a euro left in his pocket, Smith, an actor and singer of Broadway tunes whose luck has soured and whose girlfriend is murdered by a jealous Turk, a shady businessman who then turns his pistol upon himself, decides on a whim to enlist in the Legion. Here he endures the brutal training all must undergo who hope to join this unique collection of hardened men, professional soldiers, and drifters (all nationalities are welcome in the Legion except for the French themselves; they may only serve as officers or under an assumed nationality).
On completing his training, Smith falls under the tutelage of Colonel Philip de Noyer, a French aristocrat who is slowly being consumed by a hereditary madness. De Noyer loves his young wife, the beautiful Louise Vilhardouin whom he once rescued from suicide, but he also reveres the Legion. The honor of both men, and that of the Canadian Evariste Pinard, is tested to the limits by the tension created by their loyalty to their comrades and their desire for Louise.
If you know a man who gets a come-hither look in his eye at the mention of adventure and faraway places, who needs some plastique to blow him out of this life and into some wild encounters with terrorists, madmen, and passionate women, then look no farther than this grand tale of La Legion Etrangere.
For those seeking a tale of mystery and intrigue along the lines of The DaVinci Code, Jerome R. Corsi has written The Shroud Codex (ISBN 978-1-4391-9041-8, 2010, $26), a novel which explores the riddle of the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth wrapped around Christ as he lay in the tomb after his crucifixion. Here a priest, Father Paul Bartholomew, has begun to take on the wounds and appearance of the image left on the shroud. Dr. Stephen Castle, an atheist, takes Father Bartholomew as his patient and as a result finds himself in the middle of a war between believers like Father Bartholomew’s parishioners and skeptics like Professor Gabrielli, who contends that the shroud is a medieval forgery. The subjects that rise up from this conflict range from ancient pigments and dyes to speculations by physicists about the nature of reality and time, and should satisfy all those readers who love to examine the conundrums left us by the past.
The old adage that big gifts come in little packages holds true for Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life (ISBN 978-0-385-53357-7, 2010, $25). Author of such novels as The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music, Conroy gives us in this small, plump volume an account of his life as a reader and his love for books. Among many other topics, My Reading Life includes an account of Conroy’s beloved high school teacher, Mr. Gene Norris, whom Conroy credits with his own success as a writer; his defense of Gone With The Wind as a great novel; a hilarious put-down of Alice Walker; his love affair with the poetry of James Dickey; and his sojourn in Paris. These tales all bear the inimitable Conroy marks: sprawling, funny, touching, warmly personal.
Those of us in Western North Carolina who still hold Thomas Wolfe in high esteem and who are proud to honor his name will find Pat Conroy’s confession of debt to Wolfe particularly gratifying. Though many authors — Ray Bradbury, James Jones, Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, and Betty Smith come immediately to mind — have praised Thomas Wolfe for the inspiration given them by his writing, Wolfe’s reputation has slipped among academics these last forty years. Pat Conroy makes no bones about his own love for Wolfe’s writing. In the twenty-five page essay on Wolfe published here, “A Love Letter To Thomas Wolfe,” Conroy tells us how Gene Norris introduced him to Look Homeward, Angel and brought him to Asheville as a student to tour Wolfe’s home. He takes to task those critics who attack Wolfe for his lack of verbal restraint and his effusive style (a criticism some make of Conroy himself). At one point in the essay, recollecting how much Wolfe’s writing meant to him as a young man, Conroy writes:
“What the critics loathed most, I loved with all the clumsiness I brought to the task of being a boy. ‘He’s not writing, idiots,’ I wanted to scream at them all. ‘Thomas Wolfe’s not writing. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? He’s praying, you dumb sons of bitches. He’s praying.’”
The Shroud by Jerome R. Corsi. Threshold Editions, 2010. 336 pages.