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Two Books for Christmas

The search is over for something unique.

8:57 AM, Dec 13, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The Dream Machine
The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey
By Richard Whittle
Simon & Schuster, 464pp., $27

Two Books for Christmas

Whiskey
A Global History
By Kevin R. Kosar
Reaktion, 160pp., $15.95

Richard Whittle’s Dream Machine may seem an unconventional choice to put under the Christmas tree, but that largely depends on the gift’s recipient.

This is ostensibly a history of the V-22 Osprey helicopter, a Marine weapon designed and built by Bell Helicopter employing “tiltrotor” technology that maneuvers two giant rotors to allow the aircraft to take off and land, and moves the rotors forward to fly at high speed. Whittle, a veteran defense correspondent, deftly describes the history of the tiltrotor concept—one answer to the old aviation quest of combining a helicopter’s versatility with an airplane’s speed—and the development of the Osprey by Bell. But this is more than a technical summary of military hardware. By recounting the story of the Marine Corps’ adoption of the Osprey as its aerial weapon of choice, and its devotion to the Osprey through years of catastrophic mishaps, budgetary obstacles, and political hoops—not to mention lost lives—Whittle has told the most instructive tale of the way things are done in Washington in some time. He tells it, moreover, with deep knowledge, wide experience, sympathy and an unblinking eye.

This is the busy intersection where the military-industrial complex meets the permanent political establishment--and it is no small compliment to Whittle as reporter and writer that the lurid details of weapons design, defense procurement, and congressional lobbying are conveyed with entertaining skill and commendable devotion to telling the story straight and true. Anybody interested in modern government, modern politics, and modern military policy – and would like to find the three in one fascinating package – will read The Dream Machine with pleasure and profit.

On an entirely different note, Kevin R. Kosar, an occasional contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, has written a brief, informative, and endlessly diverting history of whiskey—in its many incarnations—that is not exactly intoxicating, but deeply satisfying.

The origins of whiskey are, of course, uncertain and obscure, stretching deep into the medieval past, and what we now call “whiskey” covered a variety of substances – some recognizable, some supremely lethal--until relatively modern times. It was a combination of official regulation (including taxation) and industry self-government which created the distilling world we know today, and established the standards that distinguish between bourbon and Scotch, or rye and Irish whiskey. As might be expected, a variety of cultural, historical, and geographical factors have yielded the different elixirs covered by the general term, and it is interesting to learn about the common themes and essential differences of the thrifty distillers of Scotland and, say, the hereditary (Scots-Irish) moonshiners of Appalachia. All this Kosar achieves with humor, and a deft, succinct command of his material.

The great mystery of whiskey—to this consumer, at least—is the extent to which its common origins produce such disparate products, and how radically different human palates can be. One man’s smooth, nutty beverage is another’s wretched toxin, and the author has his own distinct tastes. But it would be difficult to find, in the holiday season, a superior gift to this tasty, eye-opening, gem of light scholarship. 

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