Three books, two I want to read and one I have.
Duke, by Terry Teachout — I trust Terry on everything, especially jazz. His bio of Louis Armstrong, Pops, was a delight. Duke is the companion piece, the life of the other titan of golden-age jazz. From what Terry has told me, I expect Thackeray with a sound track: the story of an ambitious striver trying to make his way in a world that was only erratically hospitable.
The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, by Jonathan Franzen — I am not a Franzen fan. But Karl Kraus, the early-20th-century Viennese wit, sounds like a must-know guy (the quip I know is his comment on left-wing factions, which fight like tiny creatures devouring each other in a drop of water). I am also impressed when a big-deal author devotes himself to a project that is not self-promoting.
1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies — This one came across my desk at National Review. What a treat: bite-sized vignettes of cultural and political figures making their way across the last year of peace. My favorite: two young men who in January liked to walk in the park at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, and might even have nodded to each other in passing: Josef Djugashvili a.k.a Stavros Papadopoulos a.k.a Josef Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. “The terrible short 20th century begins on a January afternoon in 1913 in Vienna. The rest is silence.”
— Richard Brookhiser, a National Review senior editor, is the author, most recently, of Madison.
ORSON SCOTT CARD
The Amelia Peabody Mysteries, by Elizabeth Peters — Starting with Crocodile on the Sandbank, the intrepid 19th-century feminist heroine Amelia Peabody and her equally remarkable family strode through the world of Egyptian archaeology with integrity and outrageously good luck. Author Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz) passed away in August of this year, but the Amelia Peabody novels are a monument to the birth of Egyptology, to many creators of early-20th-century fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to H. Rider Haggard, and to the author’s own brilliantly arch humor, which can be fairly compared to Jane Austen’s. The series really takes off with the childhood of Amelia’s son Ramses in the third book, The Mummy Case. I recommend listening to Barbara Rosenblat’s wonderful audiobook narration of all the books.
The Sports Gene — I always thought there was a huge hole in the “theory of 10,000 hours” as expressed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Who would put 10,000 hours into acquiring any skill, if he weren’t so naturally good at it that the experience was rewarding from the start? The complete answer now shows up in David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Epstein demonstrates that there are populations disposed by genetics and environment to become super-achievers in various athletic disciplines. Epstein doesn’t claim that genes are the only thing; but in some fields of human endeavor, at least, genetic predisposition is decisive. Put in 10,000 hours if you enjoy the task — but don’t expect to surpass those whose genes give them an insuperable advantage!
The Smartest Kids in the World — Author Amanda Ripley cannot, alas, overcome her politically correct bias, but she has the journalistic integrity to include enough accurate data for readers to reach their own conclusion about what approach to education is the most effective, admirable, and conducive to happiness. Short answer: Finland, not Korea, please. Perhaps I read this book differently because I had already read (and agreed with) The Homework Myth (Kohn) and The Case Against Homework (Bennett & Kalish). Ignore Ripley’s elitist sneers at Midwestern rejection of the Common Core — by her own evidence (and Finland’s!), the Common Core is doomed to fail anyway. You shouldn’t move to Finland — but we should certainly learn from Finland’s extraordinarily successful (yet completely predictable) success.
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis — Ignore the absurdly overblown movie version of The Hobbit — Peter Jackson has never understood Tolkien and never will. Instead, experience Lord of the Rings — the greatest work of prose fiction in the 20th century — as it should be experienced, not as a movie, but as a book read and sung aloud. Readers tend to skip over the songs and poems, but they are a vital part of the world and culture Tolkien created. In Rob Inglis’s powerful reading, all the songs are performed — with melodies that Tolkien approved during his lifetime. Now that you can download the whole trilogy and listen to it on portable devices, it’s time to remind yourself what true storytelling is.
Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger — Somewhere between Steampunk, Oz, and Jane Austen, you can find the world of Gail Carriger’s wonderful new young adult series, starting with Etiquette & Espionage. A misfit young English lady in the Napoleonic era is sent to a highly unusual finishing school — where, dodging highway robbers and the occasional werewolf, she finds her way through the cracks and creases of society and school. The sequel, Curtsies & Conspiracies, just came out.
— Orson Scott Card is a novelist and critic.