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Honorable mentions

National | In a good-news-bad-news year for literature, some books stood their ground

Issue: "Gore strikes out," Dec. 9, 2000

The year 2000 in books was the year of Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling's latest installment, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, was so anticipated, so hyped, and sold so many copies that the children of the nation were turning off the TV so that they could lose themselves in a book thicker than War and Peace. Too bad the book that finally hooked many on reading was a fantasy about a school for witches.

The year 2000 was also the year a series of novels written by evangelicals broke through into the mainstream market, becoming almost as popular as Harry Potter. Somehow, though, American culture and the literary scene do not seem particularly influenced by the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In the relief that Y2K did not usher in the apocalypse after all, the public, while intrigued by the premillennialist notions of rapture and the rule of the Antichrist, may consider Left Behind's version of Christianity as just another kind of science fiction.

This good-news-bad-news pattern for Christians and conservatives who like to read kept manifesting itself. Tom Clancy has another blockbuster, The Bear and the Dragon, and it takes a stand against partial-birth abortion and Chinese persecution of Christians and is filled with laudably pro-American, culturally conservative sentiments. Too bad Mr. Clancy has gotten so big that no publisher dare edit him, and this latest book is filled with awkward profanity and the pop-novel's obligatory sex scene.

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Nevertheless, some wonderful books in the year 2000 provided solace from a mainline culture gone mad and helped us to understand that madness.

Steven Pressfield, author of the thrilling Gates of Fire about the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae, released an even richer and more complex historical novel, Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War. His recreation of the fratricidal war between Athens and Sparta that effectively ended the greatness that was Greece illuminates the opposite virtues of both city-states (Athenian individualism, pride, and pursuit of glory vs. Spartan community, self-effacement, and cultivation of courage). Christian readers will see how both of them were in sore need of the gospel.

But the novel is primarily about the brilliant demagogue Alcibiades, whose charm and ability allowed him to manipulate the Athenian democracy and keep the love of the masses no matter how many times he betrayed their trust and led their country into ruin. The ultimate comeback kid, he was able to keep returning to political power despite breathtaking indifference to moral principles. (At one point, after being removed from office, he actually joined the Spartans and fought against his own people. But they soon welcomed him back and turned against his political opponents instead.) For all of the year's many books about President Clinton, Mr. Pressfield's rigorously researched narrative about ancient Greece and what can go wrong in a democracy may be the most telling.

Jeff Shaara, who rounded off the Civil War saga started by his father Michael in Killer Angels, published a prequel titled Gone for Soldiers. This novel is an imaginative but historically grounded narrative of the Mexican War, when the soon-to-be combatants in the War Between the States-and characters in the other Shaara books-were fighting on the same side. This new novel introduces a number of young officers who experience combat and learn about leadership for the first time. We meet a frighteningly intense artillery officer named Jackson, and a quartermaster named Grant whose mundane responsibility to keep track of the supplies does not keep him from plunging into combat in a decisive way. The central, point-of-view character is Captain Robert Lee, a combat engineer who becomes an aide to the formidable hero of 1812, General Winfield Scott; Scott mentors the talented young officer and wisely takes his advice. At each critical moment of the war, Capt. Lee offers a strategic suggestion or undertakes a dangerous scouting expedition that proves critical to the outnumbered Americans' victory.

Gone for Soldiers serves as a fascinating introduction to a war that hardly any Americans today know anything about. Usually portrayed in liberal textbooks as merely an exercise in American imperialism, the Mexican War was far more complicated. It started with a dispute over the border of the newly acquired state of Texas. Santa Anna, the butcher of the Alamo, had been exiled by the Mexican government for losing Texas, so he conspired with the American government to help him return to power, with the understanding that he would then settle the dispute in America's favor. Instead, when he landed in Mexico, he made himself dictator and declared war on us. Santa Anna was the Mexican Alcibiades, with uncomfortable parallels, again, to our own President Clinton. (Ominous lesson of history: No many how times these leaders were exposed, defeated, humiliated, and driven out of office, their nations found it impossible to get rid of them and they kept coming back.)

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