As we tend to do every summer, National Review Online asked a group of readers their summer-book recommendations. Here’s what they came up with.Enjoy!
History, Politics, War.
High up on my reading list is The Reagan Diaries. I am frequently embarrassed in conservative company by not knowing half as much about the 40th president as everyone else seems to. I have never doubted that Reagan was a Good Thing politically — any friend of Maggie’s is a friend of mine — but have had trouble seeing him as an interesting person. However, I browsed this book in a store the other day and found myself drawn in. Make that top of my list.
One melancholy little curiosity I recently added to my military-history shelf was William Moore’s The Thin Yellow Line, an account of the treatment of battle-shocked waverers and deserters in the (mainly) British armed forces, principally between 1914-45. From the swift, brutal executions for “funk” in WW1 to the “L.M.F.” (lack of moral fiber) humiliations inflicted on WW2 bomber crews, it is a distressing tale, filled with deep moral conundrums.
Math. Top of my math-book list is Leonard Wapner’s The Pea and the Sun, a popular account of the Banach-Tarski Theorem, which I first encountered at age twelve in Kasner & Newman’s 1940 pop-math classic Mathematics and the Imagination. B-T says that a solid sphere the size of a pea can be cut up into a finite number of parts which can then be reassembled into a solid sphere the size of the Sun (or any other size), with no empty space in its interior. It seems paradoxical, but it isn’t really, once you understand some basic measure theory. It’s all to do with the peculiar properties of the continuum — the weirdest notion ever to have occurred to the human mind, I have slowly come to realize. For me, that deep weirdness is the draw.
Always careful, in matters mathematical, to balance the continuous with the discrete, I also want to read David Wells’s Prime Numbers: The Most Mysterious Figures in Math, the only one of David’s books I don’t yet own. His “Curious and Interesting…” series is marvelous fun.
Religion. I very much enjoyed Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy, which I took out from my local library in the hope of understanding a different paradox: Why, in this God-soaked country, do people know so little about religion? It is quite common to meet Americans who have been advertised to one, or who have advertised themselves, as pious Christians, yet who are unfamiliar with basic Bible knowledge. (Howard Dean, a lifelong churchgoer, apparently believes that the Book of Job is in the New Testament.) Similarly, I would estimate that around 99 percent of Americans can sing only one hymn sight unseen — the dreary and sentimental “Amazing Grace.” Prothero gives a good explanation for these oddities, and adds an 85-page Dictionary of Religious Literacy, which, all by itself, makes this a useful book for any intelligent young person to have on his shelf. (I’m assuming here that the young of America still have bookshelves.)
I can’t say I’m much tempted by any of the hate-God books that have been appearing the last year or so. My Dad was a militant atheist, so I heard it all around the dinner table growing up and don’t feel I need any reminders. If I were to read one of these books, it would be Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, just because I admire Dawkins so much for The Ancestor’s Tale, the best book I have ever read on evolutionary biology.
Fiction. Like the rest of you, I have the nagging feeling I’d be a happier, wiser, healthier, and better person if I read more fiction. I plan to set aside some time this summer to catch up. For starters, a good social novel would fill the spot. I’ve enjoyed Nicholas Coleridge’s journalism, in the Spectator and elsewhere, so I think I’ll put his new novel, A Much Married Man, on my summer list.
– John Derbyshire is a contributing editor to National Review
The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
During this already-long and interesting presidential cycle, I’ve thought a great deal about how faith and politics do (or should) intertwine. Of course, no one has had more experience with this than the legendary Billy Graham — for decades, he’s been able to intimately counsel and advise presidents on issues both private and public. As the book description claims, Presidents have “called him in for photo opportunities. They called for comfort. They asked about death and salvation; about sin and forgiveness.” I can’t imagine a more interesting afternoon than sitting down with coffee and this book, learning how faith has played out on a presidential level. This book promises to deal with my two favorite issues, faith and politics… and their sometimes awkward fusion.
Quiet Strength: the Principles, Practices, and Priorities of a Winning Life, by Tony Dungy and Nathan Whitaker
I’m not a football fan, but I became interested in Coach Tony Dungy during Superbowl XLI — when, of course, the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears and Dungy became the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl. (Plus, he’s only the third person in NFL history to win Super Bowl as a player and head coach.) In Quiet Strength: the Principles, Practices, and Priorities of a Winning Life, he tells how he achieved this occupational success without compromising faith or family. I’m sure the book will tell how he turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and became the winning-est coach in history. I’m sure it will also tell of his journey to Indianapolis, where he cemented his football success. However, the book promises to be about more than just football. It’ll tell about overcoming challenges: for example, being the third black NFL coach ever, raising six children (the last three of which are all adopted), and grappling with his son’s suicide at end of ‘05 season. His faith has pulled him through many hardships, a message that’ll resonate even among those who don’t know the difference between a red zone and the end zone.
For Women Only: What You Need to Know about the Inner Lives of Men, by Shaunti Feldhahn
I have a general aversion to “marital advice books.” However, the author’s appearance on Focus on the Family was so popular, James Dobson asked her back for three segments. This got my attention. The author, who’s Harvard-educated, uses systematic surveys to back up her anecdotal observation about the sexes and marital interaction. Also, it’s not an “I am woman hear me roar” or “how to get your husband to take the trash out” type tome. Rather, the book is an appreciation of the unique composition of the male brain and an exploration of the appropriate response to these unique creatures. In an age where men are portrayed on every television commercial as blubbering idiots, this book is a welcome and readable manual on how women can show respect and love to the men in their lives.
How to Raise an American, by Myrna Blyth and Chriss Winston
At my daughter’s Philly public school, patriotism was as popular as a case of head lice. It taught the “values of our pluralistic democracy” instead of citizenship. Plus, the pledge of Allegiance was considered too “exclusive,” so they took out “under God” and before doing away with it altogether. Not surprisingly, kids today are less patriotic than parents. How to Raise an American combats this “patriotism gap” with practical advice. This Memorial Day, for example, my husband and I printed out coloring sheets of Congressional Medal of Honor winners for our small children. Over crayons and cookies, we taught them about Alvin C. York, a Tennessee pacifist who nevertheless showed great heroism fighting Germans in WW1. Then we watched the black and white 1941 movie Sergeant York (with Gary Cooper), which surprisingly held my kindergartner son spellbound for its two and half hour running time. I would’ve never thought of such an activity before reading this book, which also has vacation suggestions, movie recommendations, and dinner discussion prompts for children of all ages. Having seen the Philadelphia public-school system up close, I realize the need for this book. After all, if patriotism is a four-letter word in the “birthplace of freedom,” it needs reinforcement everywhere.
– Nancy French is the author of Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Bell and cofounder of Evangelicals for Mitt.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Summer means one thing and one thing only: baseball. That’s why it’s the American pastime. Americans work hard but we work hard for summer and its lazy days and luxurious evenings. Baseball epitomizes our country’s collective spirit and individualist extremes. It is the great assimilator, a means for ethnic immigrants to become fully American. It combines the hopes of young boys with the memories of old men in an odd mix of structure and play.
Summer is baseball and baseball is summer and our country is both. I’m so addicted to the game that I honestly feel I can’t breathe properly from the final out of the last game of the World Series in late October until pitchers report for spring training in February.
But three months into the season, we can all breathe easy. While you are rehashing your favorite games, and reliving memories of the best plays of prior seasons, here are some books about baseball worth a read.
Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known best for Friday Night Lights, turns his keen observational eye on baseball by writing up a three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and their archrival Chicago Cubs in Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager. I recommend this book not only because I’m the world’s biggest Cardinals fan but because it is a great way to learn about the intricacies of baseball. Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals’ influential manager, is the centerpiece of the book. LaRussa is a bundle of contradictions — a vegetarian with a law degree who is ranked third for total number of career wins. You may have seen him on television with his unmoving face and sweaty upper lip. As his team systematically beat the favored Detroit Tigers to win the World Series last year, he barely cracked a smile. When Sports Illustrated polled players on who were the worst and best managers in the game, he appeared on both lists but his genius in getting the most out of players is widely acknowledged. Yes, he’s intense, but Bissinger shows why: the scope of his responsibilities, from cultivating talent in young players to deciding whether to respond to a batter hit by a pitch to dealing with a popular pitcher’s untimely death.
In a sense, Three Nights in August is the anti-Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. Moneyball argues that improved use of statistics produces victories while Bissinger’s take is that human nature must be coerced and manipulated by managers of varying capabilities.
David James Duncan’s brilliantly titled novel The Brothers K tackles baseball, politics, religion and family. Narrated by a middle child in a Washington State family of four boys and twin girls, the story is haunted by the father, a former minor-league pitcher whose career was cut short when he crushed his thumb in an accident at the mill. It is later replaced by a toe. While baseball provides the central metaphor, this is not so much about the game as a story about differences among siblings and how families find redemption through love.
In Pafko at the Wall: A Novella Don DeLillo recreates “The Shot Heard Round the World” — New York Giant Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the 1951 National League pennant. Those in attendance at the Polo Grounds witnessed one of the greatest moments in baseball. In DeLillo’s version — which changes perspective from Jackie Gleason, J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, announcer Russ Hodges and others — DeLillo writes a fan’s memoir.
“That’s the thing about baseball,” he writes. “You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to a game and 30 years later this is what they talk about when the poor mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.” DeLillo writes with the reverence of a true fan. He understands baseball is Chesterton’s democracy of the dead both on field and off. Football and basketball may make more money or charge more for tickets but baseball is what grabs hold of the nation. Football and basketball are sports. Baseball is a game, a perfect, slow, elaborate game. Only baseball holds fans’ attention without jiggling dancing cheerleaders or loud gimmicks between plays. Only baseball has rules for fans — don’t leave or return to your seat while a batter is up, stretch during the appointed time, never leave a game before the final out. The game is slow but should be enjoyed like a long dinner, filled with excellent conversation, witty remembrances and the right beverage.
Despite Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” and the World Series, It’s funny that we refer to baseball in global terms considering almost every team that contends for it is in the United States (does Toronto still have a team?). But the game is popular beyond the U.S. Border, most notably in Latin America and Japan. Robert Whiting compares and contrasts Japanese and American game in his You Gotta Have Wa. Wa is the group harmony that is central to the Japanese game. The book answers a fundamental question — why do the Japanese excel at the Little League level only to fall apart at the professional level? Whiting explains how Japanese baseball players are subjected to hours and hours of pre-game practice, how their catchers practice over beds of nails so that if their knees drop to rest they will suffer extreme pain. Pitchers also are told to pitch through pain. It’s as if the umpires in Japan shout out “Work ball!” at the beginning of games instead. The biggest cultural shocker is that the Japanese avoid seeing teams lose face so tied games are encouraged. This violates rule 1.02 of Major League Baseball: The objective of each team is to win by scoring more runs than the opponent.
Which brings me to the Official Rules of Major League Baseball. Every few years I enjoy reading the MLB playbook cover to cover. You can usually find it in a handy pocket-Constitution size.
There is a rule for everything — the color of bases, the ball’s construction, the slope from pitcher’s mound to home plate. There are also recommendations, such as that the line from home base through the pitchers mound to second base shall run East-Northeast and that 60 feet or more be placed between home base and the backstop. It is only through this book that one can truly appreciate the differences from field to field.
Baseball is a religion and this book comprises Moses’ law. Like the best books of the Bible, it also begins with a great line: “Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.”
And that is what it is. Enjoy the game.
– Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes for GetReligion.org in Washington, D.C.
My teacher Harry Jaffa said once there are two kinds of people: those who can buy books and those who can read books. That was the old days. Now they are practically giving them away.
Considering that America is always getting a bad rap, it is worth reminding ourselves of America’s greatness. That can be found in our Washington Fellow William J. Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope: From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom. It is the second volume of his history of America. It will make you proud to be an American.
There is much discussion these days in Washington about immigration. Three of our senior fellows have just written an excellent treatment of the issue. The Founders on Citizenship and Immigration: Principles and Challenges in America by Edward Erler, Thomas West, and John Marini will provide an important insight into why the American experiment in liberty is dependent on, among other things, the good character of its citizens.
Speaking of character, and characters, one finds an abundance of it in Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. Like many his works, it is touching, humorous, and very American. In this he captures those folks who populated central California at the turn of the last century. These paisanos were an admixture of English, Spanish, German, Irish, Italian, and Indian. Which is to say, they were Americans. They were fond of working very little, drinking very much, and philosophizing to their hearts content. Although this is not exactly the kind of assimilation America needs, it is a very fine read.
But the world is a dangerous place and to understand how our enemies think, I am looking forward to reading Spy Wars by Tennent H. Bagley. It is one case officer’s account of dealing with the famous Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko. The simple fact that the CIA has yet to get much right should be a lesson for American strategists.
Finally, being summer, there is Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game by Joseph Parent. Having avoided this frustrating game my whole life, I took it up to play with my boy, Nick. Among Parent’s many good recommendation is the simple lesson: in golf, as in life, complain to no one, not even yourself. Think about it.
– Brian T. Kennedy is president of the Claremont Institute and publisher of the Claremont Review of Books.
Kathryn Jean Lopez
This summer is a good one for great history reads. For the comprehensive, there is Bill Bennett’s motivating two-volume history of the United States, America, the Last Best Hope. For personal portraits there is the The Reagan Diaries. For utterly enjoyable, there is Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln. For the most heartwarming view of the Great Depression you’ve ever taken in, sit down with Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man. If you haven’t yet, be sure you bring John O’Sullivan’s monumental The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World to the beach with you. All of the above are must-summer-reading for the history teachers in your life, highly recommended for the rest of us.
If you didn’t get your fill of stark reality with Mark Steyn’s America Alone, make sure you’re read Melanie Phillip’s Londonistan, now in paperback, for obvious timely reasons. And send a second copy to your favorite clueless pol.
Get yourself out of the funk (you know what I’m talking about), be energized by the red, white, and blue stories of Republican victories in the not-so-past in Ed Gillespie’s Winning Right. If anyone can de-lame a drooping lame duck, it’s Eddie G. Speaking of inspirational successes: Read Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement, by Linda Bridges and John Coyne, if you haven’t — it’s rich with personality and history.
This summer highlights a number of strong conservative women writers: For semi-fiction, pick up Danielle Crittenden’s The President’s Secret IMs. For something more personal, there is Jennifer Marshall’s Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century or Wendy Shalit’s Girls Gone Mind.
Because its cover grabbed me: I have Cocktail Economics by Victor Canto on my to-read pile. My summer fiction splurge is reading Alexander McCall Smith — I’ve been wanting to read Portuguese Irregular Verbs for some months now (much lighter than it sounds!). I’ve never read A Fan’s Notes and I will this summer, before the Yankees take the World Series. For fascinating gossip and popular political history? Forget about The Diana Chronicles when there’s Robert Novak’s The Prince of Darkness.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.
John J. Miller
A few months ago, I went on a Michael Connelly spree, reading his crime thrillers at a clip of about one per week. The best is probably Angels Flight, for its vivid portrait of cops, killers, and lawyers in Los Angeles. My other Connelly favorites include The Black Echo, The Poet, and The Lincoln Lawyer.
Many of Connelly’s books feature the improbably named detective Hieronymous Bosch. He goes by Harry, which his namesake, a Dutch painter who lived five centuries ago, almost certainly didn’t. The artist’s elaborately detailed visions of heaven and hell are on arresting and definitive display in Hieronymous Bosch by Larry Silver.
Finally, everybody’s expecting big things from Jay Winik, the author of April 1865. His next book, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800, won’t come out until September but it’s already winning pre-pub raves. I’m lucky to have an advance copy and will dip into it soon.
– John J. Miller is National Review’s national political reporter.
What makes for a good beach book? For most people the answer is: a long, engrossing novel. Well, the two easiest recommendations for me to make in that vein are Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the greatest novel of them all, and Melville’s Moby Dick, the greatest American novel. (Bill Buckley didn’t read Moby Dick until he was 50; Zelig died still trying to finish it. Learn from their mistakes!) As would be appropriate for the respective national characters of Russia and America , Anna Karenina is straightforward realism with a practical moral center, while Moby Dick is a lurching, mad, purple fantasy. But either will keep you occupied for many days at the beach.
For more recent novels, four recommendations that are dear to my heart: Housekeeping, by Marilyn Robinson; The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro; What’s Bred In the Bone, by Robertson Davies; and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by J. B. Edwards. Four very different books, of course, and none of them exactly current — but more current than Anna or Moby, anyhow.
Moving to non-fiction, I recently read two books by Eugene Genovese, one long and older (Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made), one short and more recent (The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism). All those evincing “strange new respect” for the paleocons would do well to grapple with Genovese, as the question he must grapple with — can the Southern tradition in American conservatism be detached from the racialism with which it was permeated — remains vital for anyone drawing on this deepest well for American traditionalism.
One of the more interesting public policy related books I’ve read recently is Joe Williams’s Cheating Our Kids. If you want to understand why it is so hard to reform public education in America — No Child Left Behind notwithstanding — read this book. Williams is an education reporter formerly with the New York Daily News; he knows his stuff, and he tells a depressing story with clarity of analysis and of prose.
Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity is the sort of book that keeps coming back to mind the more one looks at the world. The last chapter, on American nationalism, is by far the least interesting, but the other four chapters — on Britain, France, Russia, and Germany — reach far beyond these four countries’ histories in their implications, as Greenfeld intended. Read this book and notice how often you think of China, Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, even the European Union, as you read about these varied 19th- and 19th-century struggles to forge national identity in Europe.
Greenfeld is probably better for the study than the beach. By contrast, Nicolas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (reviewed a couple of years ago by John Derbyshire in this space) is an absolutely perfect non-fiction beach book, the kind of book that is continuously feeding your head yet like Cleopatra “makes hungry where most she satisfies.”
Finally, my own reading recently has been focused on Shakespeare criticism. After reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars — which I recommend for making a variety of apparently dull topics totally fascinating, though the style is a bit breathless — I began digging in his bibliography for other gems. Three other Shakespeare recommendations: Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet In Purgatory (much more engrossing than his unconvincing popular effort, Will In the World); Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and William Empson’s posthumously published Essays on Shakespeare, particularly the two lengthy essays on Falstaff and Hamlet respectively that are the heart of the book. We conservatives are supposed to care about the permanent things; well, apart from the Bible, it doesn’t get much more permanent than the Bard.
– Noah Millman is an investment banker who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. He blogs at The American Scene.
Here are five books I’m looking forward to reading (most of them come out in the next few months):
A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There Is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless, by Eduardo Velásquez (ISI).
An irresistible title, promising to transcend the trendy culture-shout.
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk (Doubleday).
After her death, it emerged that Mother Teresa had had great struggles with doubt. Like Martin Luther King’s struggles with the flesh, this reminded us that the great saints are also in many ways people like ourselves. I look forward to getting an inside view of this woman who truly loved God in her neighbor.
The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, by Gerald J. Russello (Missouri).
Kirk has always been an interesting writer to me — at times inspiring, at others disturbing. Alan Wolfe’s angry essay in The New Republic articulated some of the problems with Kirk’s thought; I look to Russello to outline what it is in Kirk that will endure.
Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation, by John D. Sykes Jr. (Missouri).
Two captivating religious novelists who have the gift of breaking through bourgeois complacency. I find Percy compelling even at his most didactic — and here’s the thing: I did so even when I strongly disagreed with his pro-life message. When I converted to the pro-life cause a few years ago, I was quite surprised that some pro-lifers looked down on, e.g., his 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome as too heavy-handed and preachy; I had thought it was quite moving. Who knows, finally, why do these works reach some people? Perhaps Sykes will tell us.
Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and The World They Made, by Michael Knox Beran (Free Press).
I would read Beran on anything; he took even a topic as tired and over-covered as Bobby Kennedy and made it gripping (in The Last Patrician). This new book has to do with Lincoln, Bismarck, and Russia’s Alexander III.
– Michael Potemra is National Review’s literary editor.
The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes
I’m a big fan of Shlaes, and look forward to reading her revisionist history of the Depression. Having grown up in the sort of household where capitalism was suspect and FDR was a demi-god, I can’t wait for chapter and verse on the real goods.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences, by Ward Connerly
Connerly, the longtime crusader against racial preferences, is a hero of mine, and I found his autobiography — published in 2000, and due to reappear shortly in an updated edition — immensely stirring. Anyone looking for another reason to loathe Al Gore should check out the scene where, after a series of acrimonious exchanges at a White House meeting on race with Connerly and other conservatives, the then-vice president gives Connerly’s hand such a prolonged vice-like squeeze that Connerly realizes he’s actually trying to hurt him.
A terrific read. I stumbled across a copy last year in a local library and just picked up one of my own on the web for a couple of bucks. All you need to know about the French. (Especially recommended to Michael Moore).
Debunking 9/11 Myths, by the editors of Popular Mechanics
Now that 35 percent of Dems profess to believe that Bush had advance knowledge of the attacks, this point-by-point refutation of this most pernicious strain of contemporary hysteria is especially useful for dog days around the pool with New York Times-reading friends and relatives.
My wife told me to put this in. She says it makes me seem smart (as opposed to merely pretentious) because it has great contemporary resonance, touching as it does on the dangers to a republic of faint hearted and weak-willed politicians in a time of moral corruption. It is not impossible that at some point I will look at it.
– Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal. A journalist and novelist, he is most recently the author of The Girl-Watcher’s Club and How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: (And Found Inner Peace).