What were the best books of 2006? National Review asked some readers and here’s what they came up with.
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky (tr., Sandra Smith) is the best book of 1942 — and 2006. It consists of two novellas about the fall and occupation of France, written by a young Russian-born Jewish woman whose family had moved to France after the Russian Revolution. Nemirovsky planned five novellas altogether, but was murdered by the Nazis. Her two daughters survived, along with a manuscript journal. When they looked into it decades later they realized it contained not just notes, but two finished works.
Suite Francaise is well-written, honest, and unsparing, without at all being cheaply hostile. It depicts the ghastly toll of defeat and enslavement, and the noxious social forces that helped bring defeat about. Thank God that Americans, even now, do not hate each other as much as Frenchmen of the thirties — and say a prayer for people who do.
– Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.
History: When 2006 opened I was vaguely aware, as I think most educated people are, that Voltaire was a dunce at science, and that he learned what he knew from his mistress Emilie du Châtelet. David Bodanis tells the whole story in his new book Passionate Minds. What a woman! Listen: “[Voltaire] needed Emilie’s enthusiastic support, but she was distracted, busy now with learning law, taking Flemish lessons, supervising legal strategy, improving her calculus, relaxing by writing a translation of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, and attending church regularly.” Of course, Emilie never had to power-wash a garage, so she had time to spare.
Biography: Not of very wide interest, perhaps, but close to my heart because of the connection with my old home, Jonathan Bate’s 2003 biography John Clare tells us everything we need to know about the Northamptonshire peasant poet. And then some: I am not sure that Clare’s rather wretched life deserves six hundred pages, but nobody seems to be able to write a literary biography in less nowadays. Bate’s book does, though, leave you with a distinct impression that a person suffering from one of the harmless kinds of insanity was much better treated in early-Victorian England than he would be in the modern welfare state. For some more notes on Clare, and a clip of me reading his best-known poem, see here.
Human Sciences: I reviewed Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn for NRO here. It is a lucid account of our species’ prehistory, though something of a “snapshot,” as discoveries are coming so thick and fast in this area, the book will need revising in a year or two. The fundamentals are all here, though, and you should know them. Also in the human sciences, I very much enjoyed Judith Rich Harris’s new book No Two Alike. This is the author who scandalized developmental-science professionals a decade ago with her brilliant and iconoclastic The Nurture Assumption. Judith’s new book offers a theory of human individuality — why no two of us are alike, even 29-year-old identical twins joined at the head from birth. (A case she starts her book with. The twins died under surgery to separate them, surgery they had requested because of, among other things, “conflict in career goals.”) Who on earth is not interested in this stuff?
Math: At a fairly high level — higher than my books, but I think accessible to any math-smart high-school senior or undergraduate — I recommend Fearless Symmetry, by Avner Ash and Robert Gross. These authors manage to guide their reader across some pretty rough terrain — group representations, Galois theory, reciprocity theorems — without ever losing sight of familiar objects like numbers and equations. And of course symmetry, their unifying theme. Beautifully done.
Politics: A great year for polemical tracts. I hardly know where to start. Bruce Bartlett’s Impostor drives a stake through the bleeding heart of the loathsome and fraudulent “compassionate conservatism” heresy. Ryan Sager’s Elephant in the Room eloquently calls on American conservatives to return to classical fusionism. You can’t beat the old pros, though, and the best of the year is undoubtedly Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency. It’s later than you think, says Pat, and maybe too late to preserve the U.S.A. as a free nation, with liberty and justice for all. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, said Justice Jackson; but it is becoming ever more apparent that the 1965 Immigration Act was. Pat lays it all out for you. Read it, then get writing to your congresscritters.
Fiction: Like the rest of you, I don’t read half as much fiction as I’d like to. Best novel I’ve read this year was Neal Stephenson’s 1999 Cryptonomicon, but I read that for money, so it doesn’t really count. For fun I read Dan Jenkins’s 1972 novel Semi-Tough. I saw the movie way back when, and several friends recommended the book when they heard my son was in a football program and I myself was trying to learn the game. Nicely done, and, yes, better than the movie (I speak as a die-hard Burt Reynolds fan), but inspiring in me not so much mirth as nostalgia for the rougher, easier, freer world of just thirty years ago, before the accursed lawyers, accountants and politicians got their filthy hands on everything. Damn them all to hell. Here are cigarettes, booze, loose women, and political incorrectness — you 21st-century galley slaves don’t know what you missed. Oh, and football, which I am now ready to agree is indeed a great, great game.
– John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review.
Two books I enjoyed reading together were James Bowman’s Honor: A History and Barbara Leaming’s Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman , as examples of how an abstract conception –- honor — plays itself out in a personal life. Kennedy, Bowman says, was perhaps our most honor-bound president, “elected at least partly on the strength of a neo-chivalric approach to America’s…policies,” and a “Renaissance courtier’s sensitivity to slights.”
This, Bowman says, led him to run on the missile gap, create the space race, and react as he did to missiles in Cuba: “It was intolerable to (his) sense of honor to let the provocation of Soviet missiles in Cuba to go unrebuked.” Winston Churchill makes an appearance, as another proponent of unabashed glory, as does Walter Scott, who translated the traditional code of honor for the more democratic Victorian age.
It is from Leaming that we learn that Kennedy, whose father was crassly anti-romantic, constructed an honor code for himself as a child by voluminous reading: of Winston Churchill, and Sir Walter Scott.
“His taste ran to the heroes of English and Scottish history,” writes Leaming. “He was drawn to tales of adventure and chivalry, of the strong who protected the weak, and of causes worth dying for… Like Winston Churchill…he prized the story of Horatio at the gate, laying down his life to defend his city…he was entranced by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott.” Long before he knew there would be a new war, or that he would be in it, he was entranced by the courage of the titled young Englishmen who died in the Great War, (a subject that also engages James Bowman), a fate recapitulated in that of his brother, who died in a suicide mission, his near-death by drowning, and the death of and his titled young brother-in-law, shot by a sniper while leading his men.
Leaming’s book describes Kennedy’s relationships with his English Contemporaries who lived through what Churchill described as “their finest hour,” while Bowman supplies the backstory to them: and hopes that the spirit of honor lives on.
— Noemie Emery is author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families .
I could steal a page from Time magazine and proclaim EVERY BOOK published this year as the Most Notable Book of 2006. But I won’t.
Instead, I’m going to nominate Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies , not only because it is well written fascinating history but because it reminds us that all American presidents, even the Father of Our Country, have had to rely on less than sqeaky clean characters and ruthless methods to win wars and get things done.
The book is also remarkable because it NEVER mentions Barak Obama–not even once.
– Arthur Herman is the author of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.
For my money, the most important book of 2006 was Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan. It is a real eye-opener, describing how deeply England is in the grip of its growing Islamic minority’s militant leadership. The ideal of Britishness is fading, and with it national self-determination. What is most startling is Ms. Phillips’s account of the number of British Muslims who approved of the July 7 attacks — and the far greater number who support the jihadist agenda even if they would not personally commit terrorist attacks.
– Andrew McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
John J. Miller
I’ve enjoyed several books this year, but the one that I’ve already pulled off the shelf a dozen times and which has earned a permanent place near my writing desk is American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, edited by Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, and published by ISI Books. It’s thick, comprehensive, and judicious — a triumph of fusionism for a diverse movement that has changed the course of U.S. history.
— John J. Miller is the national political reporter for National Review.
I’ve read several good books, but I will single out the book of my colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru. It is The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life. The book is about abortion, mainly, and there is no more important topic — even during wartime. What is the fetus? Is it a “meaningless blob of protoplasm,” or is it an unborn child, a living human being? If the latter, abortion is screamingly important — far different from an appendectomy.
Ponnuru’s book is diamond-clear and diamond-hard, without a drop of mush in it. I believe it’s irrefutable. Certainly I have seen no refutation, and would not bank on it. Furthermore, The Party of Death is, believe it or not, a cracking good read — mordantly funny, often.
I would say this: Be pro-choice if you want to. (Ponnuru isn’t.) But, in any case, don’t be ignorant. This book is very much an ignorance-defeater.
— Jay Nordlinger is the managing editor of National Review.
My choice for the year’s best book is a dark horse: Tim Perry’s Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord. It’s a splendid work of Scriptural exegesis, ecclesiastical history, and theological argumentation about one of the most fascinating — and important — figures in the Bible. The book is saddled with an unfortunately misleading title: While the author is writing for evangelicals, the book is actually the best introduction to the subject of Mary I’ve ever come across. It will be rewarding not just for Protestants but for Catholics as well, and indeed for any interested readers.
— Michael Potemra is the literary editor of National Review.