What to Read this Summer?

An NRO Symposium

Some suggestions.

Need a book to bring to the beach — or your back yard? National Review Online asked some avid readers (and writers) for their recommendations.


John J. Miller

This fall, I’m scheduled to teach “Hemingway in Michigan,” a one-credit honors seminar at Hillsdale College. Our text will be The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The author spent much of his boyhood in what Michiganders call “Up North,” and we’re going to read all of the stories inspired by this period as well as a few other classics (such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”). So Hemingway will be on my desk through the summer and beyond.

The best mystery novel I’ve read in a while is also a Michigan book: Misery Bay, by Steve Hamilton, who recently podcasted with me. It stars Alex McKnight, an ex-Detroit cop who rents out cabins in the Upper Peninsula and occasionally takes on P.I. work in one of the most remote areas of the country — not far, as it happens, from the setting of “Big Two-Hearted River,” which may be my favorite short story by Hemingway.

John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.


John Derbyshire

For Chinese fiction I recommend, Such Is This World @ sars.come, by Hu Fayun. Yes, I agree, it’s a simply awful title. Once you get past that, though, Hu Fayun’s book is a superior specimen of dissident literature — a fully formed novel with a good, varied cast of characters and a strong narrative thread. The author gives a picture of the Chinese Communist Party in close agreement with the one offered last year in Richard McGregor’s The Party: a secretive gangster-cult decorating its self-serving brutality with pretenses of loyalty, honor, and patriotism. One character comes close to calling the Party “our thing” (La Cosa Nostra – page 428). As a story of sensitive, cultured people trapped in political barbarism, Such Is This World bears comparison with the best of the Soviet-era dissident novels. Andrew Clark has done a very diligent translation, with copious footnotes explaining all the cultural references. 

For a Chinese memoir, read Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, by Ying Ma. Ying Ma was born in South China in the late 1970s, shortly after the death of Mao Tse-tung and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Her brief memoir is in two parts. The first deals with her Chinese childhood up to age eight or nine. Then she immigrates to America with her parents and settles in the Oakland ghetto. The second half of her book tells of her experiences as an Asian immigrant living among America’s urban poor. Though unremarkable in themselves, those experiences are told with a simplicity and frankness that make them stick in the mind. Ying Ma is particularly unsparing on the casual racism of ghetto blacks: a taboo topic in polite society, but common currency in the conversation of Chinese immigrants. The book’s strongest impression, though, is of the stoical toughness of the author and her family, a toughness constrained and civilized by the ancient humanist tradition of their homeland. Tigers indeed; but with the hearts and sensibilities of philosophers. 

For miscellaneous fiction, my pick is James Gould Cozzens. Several readers of my 2009 book We Are Doomed chid me for a dismissive comment I made about the mid-20th-century novelist James Gould Cozzens, of whom I had never heard when I wrote the book. By way of penance, I have read my way through five of Cozzens’s novels. His main subject matter is the dutiful, professional American middle class: lawyers (The Just and the Unjust, By Love Possessed), priests (Men and Brethren), doctors (The Last Adam), and the military officer classes, both career and drafted, of WWII (Guard of Honor). It was Guard of Honor that got Cozzens his Pulitzer (in 1949) and I agree the book is very well done — a coldly realistic picture of the social tensions and occasional chaos in a stateside military unit during wartime. Personally, though, I liked Men and Brethren best. (I wrote something about it here.) I thought The Just and the Unjust a bit over-researched, though a friend who is a working lawyer tells me it’s very true to life. I concur with the general opinion that By Love Possessed is over-written, though there are many good things in it. Give Cozzens a try. If you are a professional, pick the appropriate novel. As I said in the afore-linked piece: “Here is an elegant, honest, fastidious writer, swept to oblivion by changing tastes, by a national turn to the sentimental narcissism he loathed.”

For human sciences, revisit In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler. Though now 20 years old (first published 1991), Carl Degler’s book has worn exceptionally well for a work in such a fast-changing field. It helps that Degler is a professional historian, with no scientific or political ax to grind. He gives a refreshingly dispassionate account of the rise, fall, and re-rise of biological ideas in the human sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology) from the later 19th century through to the 1980s. The triumph of “culture” explanations in the 1920s was, Degler makes clear, in part driven by ideological passions, but also by dissatisfaction with the empirically sparse state of the human sciences in the early 20th century. As good-quality data slowly accumulated, though — most especially data on animal behavior — biology made its comeback. This is a striking and very useful work of intellectual history.

And, for a new take on multiculturalism, look to Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa, by Ilana Mercer. Having blurbed Ilana’s book, I can cop out here by just quoting what I said in the blurb:

Ilana Mercer calls her book “a labor of love to my homelands, old and new.” The old is South Africa, which the author left in 1995. The new is the U.S.A. In both nations the founding European stock yielded up their dominance in the interests of justice and liberty. Instead of moving to equal citizenship under fair laws, however, both nations — in different style and measure but with similarly dire results — have embraced official tribalism (“multiculturalism”) and state-enforced racial favoritism (“affirmative action”). For South Africa the transformation has been fatal — brutally so for victims of the nation’s swelling social disorder, as Ms. Mercer documents in heartbreaking detail. For the U.S.A. it is not too late to change course. The lesson of South Africa, if widely known, will help to open American eyes. Here is the lesson, in a compelling and important book.

— John Derbyshire hosts the weekly Radio Derb podcast on NRO.

David Downing
My first recommendation is not to read books just because everybody else is reading them. Today’s bestsellers about dragon tattoos are likely to become tomorrow’s bargain-bin specials. C. S. Lewis once observed that it makes no more sense to focus on authors who happen to live in your own generation than it does to focus on authors who have the same hair color as you. 

For some light summer reading, I’d recommend Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River (2001), a family story set in the early Sixties and an eccentric but charming amalgam of Garrison Keillor, J. D. Salinger, Zane Grey, and the King James Bible. 

I would challenge more ambitious readers to go back and read the sections of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that they probably skipped over in school. Critics and anthologists usually focus on brother Ivan, the tormented atheist, with his parable of “The Grand Inquisitor.” But readers who only know that chapter severely misunderstand the novel, not to mention Dostoevsky in general. It is key to remember that the word Brothers in the title is plural: Readers must also follow the journeys of Dimitri, the redeemed sensualist, and Alyosha, the spiritual seeker. The most often quoted line from The Brothers Karamazov is from Ivan: “If there is no God, all things are permissible.” But you will get closer to the heart and soul of the novel if you also remember Father Zossima’s benediction to Alyosha: “May you bless life and cause others to bless it.”

— David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the author of, most recently, Looking for the King (Ignatius, 2010), a historical quest novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings.


Theresa Fagan

Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers
, by Ralph Moody, is the first in a lively autobiographical series that takes place in the early 20th century. Written in the Fifties, these jewels came back into print 20 years ago and deserve to be known better. In Little Britches, the author and his family confront life on a Colorado ranch (bought sight unseen) with optimism, ingenuity, honesty, and hard work. Especially valuable in this volume is the attractive father-son relationship. 

An engaging storyteller, Ralph Moody fills his books with vivid, memorable events and people. The first four volumes (Little Britches, Man of the Family, The Home Ranch, and Mary Emma & Company) will interest children in fourth grade and up, and adults will enjoy all eight. Not only do these books make wonderful summer reading, they would enrich every classroom and home in the country.

— Theresa Fagan’s classic children’s summer reading list can be found here.


Myrna Blyth

The books I am recommending both, surprisingly enough, have “tiger” in the title. First is The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, whose preview in the Wall Street Journal ignited a major Mommy War. Though viewed as a parenting manual, the book is really a memoir of a crazy mother with some sensible ideas, or a sensible mother with some crazy ideas. Chua is a very funny writer and through the course of the short, snappy book, she realizes that, with all her belief in the superiority of Chinese mothering, the joke, in the end, is on her. For, like Chua, you can be accomplished, brilliant, and demanding, but when you have a daughter as strong-willed as yourself, even a Tiger Mom is tamed. 

The other book, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, is a beautiful novel, set in an unnamed country recovering from a civil war. It mixes today’s reality with folk tales and fables of the past. The author, just 25, and an amazingly gifted writer, was born in Belgrade. The book interweaves the story of a young doctor and her grandfather, also a doctor, with fairly tale–like characters including a man who cannot die, the woman who hates her cruel husband but loves the tiger, and the hunter who wants to kill the tiger and may or may not succeed. It is a strange mysterious book and a searing portrait of the magic and the bitterness embedded in the history of the Balkans. 

Myrna Blyth is editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.com and co-author of How to Raise an American.

Michael Potemra
Let me recommend some powerful — and portable, for the beach! — volumes of poetry:

The Complete English Poems, by George Herbert

The Complete English Poems, by John Donne

Poetry and Prose, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Selected Poems, by Geoffrey Hill

The Aeneid of Virgil, translated by Sarah Ruden

I’ll be reliving some of these works myself this summer, and pursuing a new (and old) interest: Chesterton. Reading the new biography of Chesterton by Ian Ker, I fell in love all over again with this great, engaging voice of the 20th century. Many years ago, I read his half-dozen or so most famous works, which amounts to less than 10 percent of his output. I’m working through his writings on Kindle — check out the Kindle Store for great bargains, e.g., this collection of 19 nonfiction Chesterton books for just $1.99.

— Michael Potemra is literary editor of National Review.


Harry Stein

Anyone wondering what David Mamet might have to look forward to should pick up Stephen Koch’s The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles, about the celebrated authors’ 1937 trip to the beleaguered Spanish Republic so much in vogue among America’s intellectual elite. While what Dos Passos found as he searched in vain for his old friend Robles — a former Johns Hopkins professor secretly liquidated by Soviet agents — opened his eyes to the ruthless brutality of the Stalinist regime, Hemingway scrupulously hewed to the approved line, lending his prestige to the lie that Robles had been justly executed as a “fascist spy.” Big surprise: On their return home, “Papa” continued to prosper; Dos Passos, turned on by key figures in the literary world, went into eclipse.

As a longtime sucker for a good baseball book, and an even longer-time sucker for the New York Mets, I periodically pick up Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game about the team’s legendarily inept debut 1962 season; and with the prospect of the team unloading Jose Reyes, there couldn’t be a better time.

Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U explores today’s lunatic elitist obsession with getting one’s kids into the “right” college, via the author’s own experience with the process. It is both hilarious and wise — which is to say, for those of us parents who’ve been through it and watched our best selves swept away by a tidal wave of misplaced parental ambition, all too accurate.

— Harry Stein is author of I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican.


Fr. James V. Schall

Basically, I believe in C. S. Lewis’ admonition that for every new book we read, we should read an old book. New books are usually too caught up in the “now” to be fully trustworthy. One new book I plan to read is Brian Benestad’s Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine (CUA Press). Benestad is the clearest and most judicious of thinkers, highly unlikely to be caught up in the “now.” Jim Campbell is going to London and asked me if I wanted any “old” books. I asked him to find Hilaire Belloc’s On Anything, which I am sure he will.

Some weeks ago I reread the second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing is quite like it. If anyone has gotten this far in life without reading it, he should not get through the summer leaving it unread. At my brother’s home in California, I read one third of Laura Hillenbrand’s book on Seabiscuit. I intend to finish it and read her Unbroken, which friends from St. Louis gave me. I read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy with a class this past semester. No book in this world tells us so many truths so delightfully in so few pages.

-– Fr. James V. Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of Another Sort of Learning

John Nolte
At just 280 pages, Andrew Klavan’s latest thriller Identity Man makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon companion under the nearest shade tree. The story of a lowlife criminal framed for a murder he’s innocent of, but given a second chance by a strange benefactor, it is an addictive page turner. And the novel’s central theme lingers with you long after you turn that final page. This is the moving story of one man’s long emotional haul to a place of grace and redemption set inside a plot that reads like the outstanding HBO series The Wire and a world that feels like post-Katrina New Orleans.

Best of all, Klavan’s achieved something we will never see enough of. Without being partisan or preachy, Identity Man is a novel for conservatives that’s accessible to people of all political stripes. Using vibrant characters and the all-too familiar machinations of racial politics set within the big, corrupt Democratic political machine currently ravaging most every city in America, the novelist makes quietly convincing political and social statements in ways that creep up on you,  without employinga heavy hand.

 — John Nolte is editor of BigHollywood.


Terry Teachout
I’d recommend James Agate’s The Selective Ego (out of print but available from Amazon and other used-book dealers). You don’t have to be an intellectual to be a great diarist, and Agate, the spectacularly self-involved drama critic of the London Sunday Times from 1923 until his death in 1947, wrote about the printable parts of his life with careful evasion (he was given to masochistic practices of the grossest sort) and colossal panache. This concise compilation of entries from Ego, the nine-volume series of diaries that Agate published in the Thirties and Forties, is a superlative bedside book, hugely amusing and easily readable in random snatches.

David R. Dow’s The Autobiography of an Execution  is an astonishingly well-written memoir by Texas’ best-known death-row lawyer, in which he describes the nuts and bolts of how his clients make their (usually inevitable) way to the grave. No matter how you feel about capital punishment — and especially if you support it, whether staunchly or uneasily — this sobering book will bring you face to face with the arbitrary, often capricious way in which the death penalty really works.

 Concerning What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by Ricky Riccardi, I can’t do better than to repeat my dust-jacket blurb: “The later years of Louis Armstrong are one of the most fascinating untold tales in the history of jazz. What a Wonderful World is indispensable to anyone with a serious interest in the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.” If you liked my Armstrong biography, you need to read this book.

Wesley Stace’s Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer is a historical thriller in which the lives and work of Peter Warlock, Constant Lambert, and Carlo Gesualdo are blended into the hair-raising tale of an unworldly music critic who writes an opera libretto for a flint-hearted composer, who returns the favor in the most malevolent way imaginable. The author (better known in pop-music circles as John Wesley Harding) has done a virtuosic job of fusing fact with fiction, and the result is one of the few novels with a musical setting in which the background is rendered accurately. Absolutely not for musicians only, though those who already know the dramatis personae will be dazzled by the sure-footed skill with which Stace has put their real-life stories to novelistic use.

Finally, try Richard Stark’s Butcher’s Moon — the best of Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonymous thrillers about Parker, the toughest burglar who ever lived, in which he goes up against an entire big-city crime syndicate — with a little help from a lot of friends. Out of print for years and years, Butcher’s Moon is the ultimate Parker novel, best read as an installment in the series but comprehensible and satisfying on its own.

— Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

Kathryn Jean Lopez
The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God
is a real book about a real person — a smart, honest, devoted, humble one who changed lives. The late Ruth Pakaluk was a good woman — a loving wife, mother, and friend. She was giving, challenging, and welcoming. Through this collection of her letters and speeches, she can be your friend, too, continuing to give and challenge and welcome readers  thanks to the work of her husband in putting it together for us. It’s an accessible and enriching read. 

I encounter so many people who still have not discovered Abby Johnson’s Unplanned. I realize a book about abortion isn’t exactly a relaxing, beach-trip material. But it’s a humane testimony, taken both deep into the contentious political debates, and twelve steps back, too. 

Don’t go another season without reading Eric Metaxas’s biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, especially if you’ve never thought to read a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer before. 

Give a twenty- or thirtysomething you love Fr. Jonathan Morris’s God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help. He may not thank you quite right away, but he may pick it up when he needs it. 

David and Nancy French’s Home and Away, about life as a military family, is the story of less than one percent of us, to whom we owe so much. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


Michael Walsh
There are two books on my must-read list this summer: The first is David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge, his very own coming-of-age memoir about his political conversion from Left to Right (which NRO recently excerpted here). 

You could tell as far back as Oleanna that Mamet — as a real artist should — was willing to let the logic of his dramatic vision override any politically correct considerations, but this book will still come as a shock his former fellow-travelers, and it will be interesting to see how it — and he — are received henceforth on Broadway and in Hollywood. In a series of coruscating essays, which somehow manage to be both scathing and measured at the same time, Mamet ascribes his change of heart to Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell, an influential rabbi, and his own keen insight, which finally forced him to reconcile his vision as a writer with cold reality.

The second is Paradise Lost. Yes, I know: Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind, as they used to say about Time magazine. But if you’d like to understand what’s going on in America right now, and what the next election is really all about, Milton is your man. You might even learn a new word or two. 

— Michael Walsh, as David Kahane, is author of Rules for Radical Conservatives.


Charlotte Hays

A wonderful book to read in the summer is Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, though no matter your culinary accomplishments, you will be hard-pressed to duplicate the exquisite picnic put on by the aristocratic dilettante Jules von Felden. “Luncheon was laid on a bare pink marble under a trellis,” begins the thrilling passage. The fish are wiggling moments before they are ingested (Jules can’t fathom why his bourgeois in-laws, the rich, generous, Jewish Merzes, eat fish in a soufflé!). The picnic is one of the things I always like to recall in the book, and I suppose I am using the Whole Foods angle to push my favorite unappreciated novel as a beach read. A Legacy, which came out in 1956, is set in Germany in the years leading up to World War I. We meet Johannes von Felden, a gentle boy ruined by his experiences as a cadet in military school. Still, for me the most shocking scene is Jules’ unthinking betrayal of his real feelings for the Merzes in the choice of a gift. Bedford’s prose is lapidary (Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford thought so, too), so you simply must put her in your picnic hamper.

Charlotte Hays is a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.