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.
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.
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.