The Five Best From My 'Book World' Past

My first review for Book World appeared in Style on Christmas day, 1978; a few weeks later, I made my first appearance in Sunday's Book World, by then a section of its own.

As most of you know by now, we are now merging with the rest of the paper, going back to the womb. I thought I would take the occasion to re-examine the five best books I've had the privilege of reviewing for Book World during my 30-year association with it in tabloid form. In order of publication, here they are:

1. Into the Heart of Borneo (1984), by Redmond O'Hanlon.
I hadn't been to Borneo when I read this rollicking travelogue, but now that I have I appreciate it all the more. So evocative of the steamy, fecund jungle is O'Hanlon's prose that after reading a few chapters you'll want to pause and check yourself for leeches.

2. Shackleton, (1985), by Roland Huntford.
The same author's debunking book on Scott's Antarctic expedition stirred up a controversy that lingers to this day. In contrast, Huntford's admiring portrait of Scott's Polar rival Sir Ernest Shackleton has been widely accepted, so much so that Shackleton's exemplary leadership looms large in business books (how it's possible to analogize from being shipwrecked in the Antarctic to working for a 21st-century corporation is beyond me, but then I didn't go to business school). At any rate, the important thing about Huntford's biography is how thrillingly it tells the story of an expedition that came a cropper in the worst possible conditions but was held together by the will power, brains and high spirits of its leader.

3. The Runaway Bride (1990), by Elizabeth Kendall.
Anyone who loves the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s has probably wondered how their leading ladies -- Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert and others -- got away with being so smart and sassy in an era when women were still regarded as helpmeets. Elizabeth Kendall looked into the matter and concluded that their directors (the likes of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Preston Sturges) fell in love with the actresses, and in some cases had affairs with them, precisely because of their wit and independence. It's a brilliant hypothesis, very well argued, and the book does what criticism should: help us to see works of art in a new way.

4. Young Men and Fire (1992), by Norman Maclean.
You can hardly pick up a book about decision-making these days without running into Wag Dodge. He's the smokejumper who, faced with a horrific fire sweeping up a Montana gulch, devised the perfect solution. While his colleagues tried to outrace the blaze -- all but two of them dying in the attempt -- Dodge lit a backfire, hunkered down in the ashes, and survived. The story of the fire is the subject of Maclean's obsessive book, which he labored on for decades and left all but finished at the time of his death. A nonfiction masterpiece.

5. Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort (1999), by Roger Martin du Gard.
Martin du Gard won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1937, but he might have said to the judges (in French, of course), "You ain't seen nothin' yet." The labor of decades, this posthumous novel also remains unfinished, but the parts that we have -- 700-plus-pages worth -- make for a reading experience of the highest order. One section in particular may be the best treatment of pre-Stonewall homosexual love in all of literature.

Please tell us about books you esteem that first came to your attention via reviews in Book World.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  February 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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Jonathan Yardley included "Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake" in a round up of notable books a few years ago. I live in a historic town along that river and learned a lot of local history and geology from the book. How nice to give a book that might only find a forgotten place on regional library shelves its due in the WP. I would not have learned of it otherwise.

Posted by: cebeling | February 13, 2009 1:16 PM

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