The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush, Pierre Berton (Carroll & Graf). More than 100,000 people traveled into the depths of the Yukon during the late 19th Century, but only 30,000 or 40,000 reached their golden goal--what Pierre Berton calls "a wretched little salmon stream (with) a handful of scrawny creeks." Of these, only 4,000 found gold and only a few hundred in quantities large enough to call themselves rich. Berton is intimately familiar with these sobering statistics--he grew up in Alaska after his father, a college graduate "spoiling for adventure," crossed the wilderness in 1898, only to make a claim on a gravel gulch. Yet in this 1958 book, the definitive history of the period, Berton is full of wonder, excitement and awe over "the fabulous madness" that possessed the prospectors. He takes us on a dramatic, funny, superbly written tour of the whims of fate ("The easiest ways to wealth turned out to be the weariest and survival became sweeter than any fortune"), the alliances and rivalries, and the changes: In the 1890s, Circle City, 4,000 miles from civilization, builds three theaters, eight dance halls, a hospital, a library and a school; by the winter of 1896, the town is abandoned, "creaky and vacant," with "stacks of gold-pans long disused and rusty, oil paintings of voluptuous women thick with dust."
Happy Birthday, Wanda June; Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade; The Sirens of Titan; Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (Opinions), Kurt Vonnegut (Delta/Seymour Lawrence). This quartet captures Kurt Vonnegut's wry charm and dark humor over three decades. "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," a revised version of his first play ("Penelope"), begins with a lengthy autobiographical introduction by Vonnegut and then looks at "men who enjoy killing--and those who don't." "Slaughterhouse-Five," published at the peak of Vonnegut's popularity in the 1960s, broadens the theme of "Happy Birthday" from anti-violence to anti-war, scorning complacency through the story of an American soldier in World War II. In "The Sirens of Titan," received as science fiction (to Vonnegut's consternation), Vonnegut asks why Malachi Constant, "a notorious rakehell" and the richest man in America, would blast off in his own private spaceship in pursuit of "the sirens," a wave phenomenon pulsing in a distant spiral galaxy. That and other mysteries are explained in the fourth book, "Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons," a collection of Vonnegut's essays and lectures.
Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, Diana Karter Applebaum (Facts On File). While Fourth of July might be the showiest of American holidays, Thanksgiving is the richest in tradition. Diana Karter chronicles the ceremony--from celebrations by settlers at Plymouth (though Berkeley Hundred, Va., was the earliest site) to those by soldiers in Vietnam. While the book offers no revelations about America's social history, it is an abundantly illustrated, entertaining look at an American institution.
Power and Principle, Zbigniew Brzezinski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); The Supply-Side Revolution: An Insider's Account of Policymaking in Washington, Paul Craig Roberts (Harvard). These accounts of Washington policy making--the first examining foreign policy under Carter, the second, economic policy during the first years of the Reagan Administration--provide broad theoretical overviews as well as intimate profiles of personality clashes and power plays. In "Power and Principle," Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, remains largely loyal to his former boss. Despite popular punditry, he insists that Carter's foreign-policy record was "genuinely constructive." Like Harry Truman, Carter will go through a period of unpopularity, Brzezinski writes, before history finally delivers a favorable judgment. Brzezinski, however, deviates a bit to the right of the Democratic Party line: In a new forward written for this 1983 book, he endorses President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). Paul Craig Roberts also offers constructive criticism, though he is convinced that "supply-side economics is the economics of a free society. It will prevail wherever freedom itself prevails."