First I call your attention to 2001's Churchill, a Biography--by Roy Jenkins (paperback: Plume, $18). Of all the works on Winston Churchill (and the list of books about him is approaching the length of the list of Abraham Lincoln biographies), I would nominate Jenkins' biography as one of the best--although William Manchester's unfinished study is great, too.
Jenkins, who performed similar services for prime ministers William Ewart Gladstone, Herbert Henry Asquith and Stanley Baldwin, as well as for others of historic significance, was superbly gifted with experi-ence (50 years at or near the top of British and European politics) and had the opportunity to observe Churchill during the 16 years they served together in the House of Commons. Jenkins' recent death has deprived us of the further biographies we were all anticipating.
Churchill is, on the whole, admiring, but it is certainly no hagiography. The last sentences disclose the fairness and the fullness of this great biography: "When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, histenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."
Next I want to call attention to two books that have two things in common: both are by Buckleys--father and son, respectively--and are therefore distinguished by first-rate writing, great narrative skill and a splendid appreciation of the historic and the comic.
Getting It Right--by William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, $24.95)--continues Bill Buckley's series of turn-ing the history (perhaps too narrow a canvas here) of 20th-century American politics into exciting novels. And, of course, the author himself is a participant in many of the incidents. In Getting It Right we see what Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, and the impressive, puzzling and enormously influential (for a short time) Ayn Rand were really like. Rand's novels about the beginning of the conservative movement rivaled the Harry Potter novels in sales. Now it's hard to know quite why, as Rand's writing was unexceptional. Probably her loss of fame is be-cause conservative thought and philosophies--so unusual at the time--have become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that her writings have lost their shock value. Welch and Rand had offshoots that had to be exorcised and dealt with before conservatism could be accepted. Buckley was the major force behind making conservatism appealing, un-derstandable and respectable.
Washington Schlepped Here--by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys, $16)--is an incredibly good guidebook to our nation's capital. Even the most ancient of Washington's cave dwellers who are reputed to know every-thing will have a lot to learn about their city from young Buckley. Christopher, a comparative newcomer, has mined the sources assid-uously, without ever losing his extra-ordinary comic talents. There are few--if any--better descriptions of the Freer Gallery of Art's Peacock Room. And I'd be surprised if many Lincoln scholars are familiar with Lincoln's cas-ual dismissal of criticism of the Gettysburg Address: "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a differ-ence of purpose between the Almighty and them." When it comes time for your children or grandchildren's school class to visit Washington, the best preparation they or anyone could have would be to read this book.
Then I read two too short books with similar themes: An Italian Affair--by Laura Fraser (Vintage Books, $12) and A Thousand Days in Venice--by Marlena de Blasi (Ballantine Books, $12.95). In both of these books an American woman, each an excellent book, has her dreams of romance in Italy come true--at least for a time. Ms. Fraser's book is far superior, probably because of a general lightheartedness and her obvious joy in her love affair. In both books, the local color and the descriptions of the mouthwatering Italian dishes are superb. These books are among the best recruiting weapons Italy's tourism authority could wish for.
And last I read a truly small, delightful book for dog lovers: Why Dogs Do That--by Tom Davis (Wil-low Creek Press, $13.95). An earlier Davis work, Just Goldens, chronicles the lives and skills of golden retriev-ers. Why Dogs Do That answers several puzzling questions, such as why dogs bury bones; why dogs insist on sleeping in bed with their masters; and why some dogs howl. (Sadly there's no reasonable explanation for the blood-curdling noises emitted occasionally--usually around midnight--by my golden retriever.) This book is a splendid addi-tion to dog lore. It should enable you to understand at least some of your dog's puzzling, but always lovable, behavior.