We asked some of NRO’s literati: What books, old or new, would you recommend for our summer beach reading?
The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War by David Lebedoff. An interesting essay on two heroes of the last century, the socialist atheist and the Tory Catholic. Lebedoff argues, not unpersuasively, that they had much in common.
The Aeneid, translated by Sarah Ruden. A sensational translation of Virgil’s epic of war by a Quaker convert who found common ground with him. NB: Mike Potemra and I took her to lunch, and she is a wonderful person, eager, earnest, and funny all at once.
Golden oldie: Snows of Yesteryear, by Gerhard von Rezzori. Memoirs of the son of a minor Hapsburg official, growing up between the wars in the Romanian hinterlands (now in Ukraine). Teaser: Though the author’s father was a deep-dyed anti-Semite, he was not at all pleased by the emergence of Hitler, remarking that he would not hire the Nazi leader to be his coachman.
– Rick Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.
Dead Souls In honor of Nikolai Gogol’s bicentenary, I had another go at his masterpiece. From Abebooks I got the 1942 B. G. Guerney translation, as recommended by Vladimir Nabokov, but absurdly titled: Chichikov’s Journeys, or Home Life in Old Russia. (Nabokov thought the title change was “prompted by the fear of suggesting gloomy ideas to rosy-cheeked comic strip fans.”)
What a peculiar novel! I only read Book 1, again on Nabokov’s advice — he says Gogol went off the literary rails thereafter. It offers the reader a sort of dream landscape of shabby little towns and people dealing with each other incoherently, stumbling and groping through their fates to not much effect. Dark and very strange, it is material organized on principles not always logical.
Obscure and humble is the origin of our hero. His parents were of the nobility, but whether hereditary or from a new-baked lot, God knows. He did not resemble them in face. . . .
All well and good: but this is page 211 of the Guerney text! The Modern Movement accustomed us to this kind of narrative jiggery-pokery, but it must have been striking in 1842. A very odd book, whose inhabitants, while recognizably human, leave the reader feeling uneasy about our species and its prospects.
Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World More a coffee table book than a beach book — it measures ten inches by twelve — this book from Princeton University Press offers 92 large black-and-white studio photographs of mathematicians, each faced by a page of text, 400 to 900 words, in which the featured mathematician talks about himself and his work.
The editor explains that: “The selection is not intended as a list of the ‘top’ current mathematicians but rather is somewhat random.” There is therefore a good geographical spread, all continents represented, and both sexes (11 of the 92 are female). There is a quite extraordinary variety of backgrounds, confirming one’s intuition that of all talents, the mathematical one may be most helpful in lifting genius out of obscurity.
Mariana Cook’s photographs seem to defy the common belief that mathematics is a young person’s game. The median age here is somewhere in the fifties. It takes a while to get famous, though, even in math, and the common belief, while largely true, has many exceptions. The other common belief about mathematicians, that their minds dwell far from the world of words and expressed emotion, is quite false, as the eloquence of many of Ms. Cook’s subjects shows. Here is Sir Michael Atiyah (who grew up in Khartoum):
Mathematicians are generally thought of as some kind of intellectual machine, a great brain that crunches numbers and spits out theorems. In fact we are . . . more like creative artists. Although strongly constrained by the rules of logic and by physical experience, we use our imagination to make great leaps into the unknown. The development of mathematics over thousands of years is one of the great achievements of civilization.
Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable Cognitive scientists are pushing forward the understanding of how we think. Here is one of them, Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol, with a book about why we believe illogical or preposterous things. Believing that if you let go of your coffee cup it will drop to the ground is perfectly reasonable; but why do we believe that we can sense being stared at from behind? Or that a fountain pen that once belonged to Albert Eistein has some awe-inspiring quality that John Derbyshire’s fountain pen does not have? Or that performing the sex act in a cathedral confessional is more flagitious than doing the same thing in a bus-station toilet cubicle? And then of course the big things: afterlife, God, sacred objects.
The cog-sci researchers are gradually uncovering a strange mental landscape, its most prominent contours formed by our biology:
Supernatural beliefs are not simply transmitted by what people tell us to think. Rather, I would argue that our brains have a mind design that leads us naturally to infer structures and patterns in the world and to make sense of it by generating intuitive theories. These intuitive theories create a supersense. I think this happens early in development even before culture can have its major influence. That effect of culture may occur much later in a child’s development. Meanwhile, there is something in our biology that leads us to belief.
Hood belongs to the school of thought that sees supernatural thinking as fundamentally, ineradicably human. It can’t be excised from the human personality, as more radical spirits like Richard Dawkins seem to think. So let’s study supernatural thinking, see how it works, see how it is related to other kinds of thinking. This is an interesting and worthwhile project; though where it will lead us at last, one can only wonder.
– John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist. His book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism will be published by Crown Forum in September.
JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
Here are three books, all of them published in decades past: Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann, a hilarious novel about an eccentric, comic, but ultimately tragic New Orleans family; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a delicate, Brave New World novel that unfolds in a British boarding school with a sinister mission; and Double Indemnity, a great hard-boiled murder story made into a film noir classic for double the pleasure.
– Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the National Catholic Register, The Weekly Standard, and First Things, among other publications.
ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
New titles for beachbags:
Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Rise of the Conservative Movement, by Richard Brookhiser. This splendid memoir does more than trace the evolution of a relationship between one of the great men of the last century and his young protégé who fulfilled the promise that his mentor spotted early on. It recaptures a time when WFB and his small band of cohorts were all there was to what became a powerful political movement.
Plain Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution, by Richard Beeman. Here comes a fresh reminder that the success of the American experiment in self-government and the preservation of freedom was by no sure thing. Those most responsible for the success of the Great Convention of 1787 and the Constitution it produced departed Philadelphia with their fingers crossed. Readers of this stunning narrative will want to pick up Brookhiser’s delightful accounts of four of its unforgettables: G. Washington, A. Hamilton., G. Morris, and J. Adams (and his progeny).
Three Golden Oldies:
Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury. Fifty years after its publication, this celebrated novel appears as contemporary as it is anachronistic. Those who pick it up will recognize the character sketches of historical figures of the 1950s and see the Senate and those who make it go up to all their old tricks. If the founders that grace Beeman and Brookhiser’s pages did indeed bequeath us a “messy” system, Drury reminds us that it still works when it needs to.
The Unmaking of a Mayor, by William F. Buckley Jr. A delightful account of municipal politics and, perhaps, the best book by WFB. As in the case of Drury, the issues the author describes and the solutions he offers to problems have a decidedly contemporary ring.
The Making of the President, 1960, by Theodore H. White. This was the first of a genre of campaign books by White and his imitators. It takes readers behind the scenes of national campaigns after the cheering has stopped and the ballots counted (in Florida, Minnesota, and elsewhere). Unlike the authors of the slew of books that are starting to appear on the 2008 race, White at least thought he had taken pains to conceal his bias in favor of the Democratic candidate. (While he and Kennedy attended Harvard at the same time, the two did not become friendly until mutual need drew them together in 1960.) While he offers a sanitized picture of JFK, White’s presentation of Nixon is dead on. His descriptions of convention addresses by Gene McCarthy and Barry Goldwater contain foreshadowing unknown at the time by readers and authors alike.
– Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.
Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan. I read this every summer for its vivid description of smart, creative, and fearless warriors on duty in some of the most isolated and challenging trouble spots on the planet (Yemen, Mongolia, Columbia, etc.). Kaplan goes to ground and writes with a knowledgeable and approving perspective of these largely unheralded soldier-diplomats.
As They See ’Em by Bruce Weber. I don’t care much about baseball, but this “Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires” fascinated me. Umpires are the invisible men of the game, except when they mess up — and thanks to instant replay, their mistakes are rerun endlessly. They have a thankless, stress-filled life with little chance for advancement to the big leagues — an average of two openings a year. Instead, most professional umpires spend 10 or 20 years in the minors, for little pay, long drives in their own cars, harassment by team mascots, and constant scrutiny by the front office. Weber, a sportswriter, spent two years researching this book, going to umpire school in Florida and getting behind the plate at a variety of minor-league and college games. A great read and I’ll never watch a baseball game the same way again.
– Robert Ferrigno is author of the novel Prayers for the Assassin.
The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq, by Bing West. This is easily the best book I’ve read about the Iraq War. Political histories of the war, which see the crucial decisions as all having come from Washington or from the (relatively) safe havens in the Green Zone, ignore a reality that West cannot and will not: that strategy matters, but even the best strategies only succeed when applied creatively and courageously by young soldiers and Marines province by province, city by city, and sometimes block by block. West keeps one eye focused on the generals and another eye focused on the troops on the line to describe the war as I experienced it during my recent tour in Diyala Province with the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment. Counterinsurgencies in multi-ethnic, sectarian countries require an enormous amount of flexibility and autonomy at the local level, and West is right to pull back from the big picture to show how battalion commanders, company commanders, and platoon leaders fought (and won) the fight in their own sectors.
The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, by Walter R. Borneman. Moving from America’s latest war to arguably its first real war as a distinct people, The French and Indian War shows how close we came to following a distinctly different (think French-focused) path. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is its description of the various Native American tribes not as pawns in a European struggle but as significant power players in their own right, capable of tipping the balance of power — especially early in the conflict. America’s transformation from a series of tiny, struggling colonies to continental power to superpower seems inevitable only in hindsight. As events played out in real time, our history was — to paraphrase Lord Wellington — a near-run thing.
The Rule of Two (Star Wars: Darth Bane, Book 2), by Drew Karpyshyn. I hesitate to let my geek flag fly, but this is NRO, and Jonah has made it a safe space for sci-fi fans everywhere. If you’re like me, and you finished the Star Wars prequels with the nagging feeling that the rebel alliance you unconditionally loved as a youth was — at the end of the day — fighting for nothing more than the re-imposition of a vast EU-style galactic bureaucracy, then this is the book for you. This book (along with the first in the Darth Bane series), traces the “modern” rise of the Sith and casts the Jedi as a sometimes-vainglorious lightsaber-wielding techno-elite. The Jedi command you to deny your human nature (or lose your head), while the Sith go all the way in the other direction and indulge their every desire — so long as it accrues to their advantage. Can’t anyone in the galaxy embrace ordered liberty?
– David French is a senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and a captain in the United States Army Reserve. He recently completed his first tour of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When my neighborhood book club finally finished reading Les Miserables, we bought T-shirts with Jean Val Jean’s prison number to commemorate the experience and breathed a sigh of relief. So I almost spit out my coffee when someone suggested our next book, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. At 633 pages, it took me a while to crack it open. But when I did, I found it was chocked full of poems, short stories, essays, and speeches, as well as excerpts of novels, memoirs, political analyses, and historical masterpieces. Solzhenitsyn is known for the Gulag Archipelago — which is excerpted — but this book contains lesser-known pieces, such as his autobiographical poem “The Trail,” secretly written in the labor camp without the benefit of paper. Also included is his famous Harvard address, a jewel of a short story called “Matryona’s Home,” along with countless other poignant, powerful pieces. New in paperback, more than one-quarter of the book’s material has never before appeared in English. Rick Brookhiser put it best when he wrote, “Reagan and Thatcher ruled states, the Pope ruled a church. Solzhenitsyn had his pen.”
Think Britney Spears, peer pressure, and Twitter are making modern kids sullen, detached, and generally rotten? Think again. Richard Weissbourd’s book about modern parenting trends places the responsibility for kids’ moral well-being squarely where it belongs — on the parents. In his book, The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, the lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education talks about popular parenting techniques such as being “positive parents,” focusing on self-esteem, and praising our kids excessively.
And the shock is? He’s against these things.
Weissbourd’s countercultural parenting advice suggests that parents’ intense focus on their children’s happiness actually makes kids less happy, that excessive praise stunts character development, and that “over-parenting” can turn children into “fragile conformists. Additionally, he challenges the “self-esteem” craze — the belief that if parents bolster their kids’ sense of self, they’ll invariably turn out to be good people. This is the first time in history that people have succumbed to this backwards idea about morality and explains that bullies, delinquents, and gang leaders often have the highest self-esteem.
I was fully prepared to read his book to figure out why other people’s kids were throwing popcorn in the movie theater, but every chapter challenged my own parenting.
It’s a meddlesome book, in other words. One you should definitely pick up.
– Nancy French is the author of A Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
Warren Kozak’s LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay does not bring a lot of new archival information to light about LeMay, nor will it be the last biography of the controversial general. But Kozak has offered the public an accessible, readable account of a truly distinguished American, completely at odds with the cigar-in-the-mouth nut we associate with the Dr. Strangelove caricature. Kozak reminds us how truly courageous LeMay was flying the lead plane on B-17 raids deep across Europe. And he shows how later, on Tinian with the B-29s, and again in the Cold War during the Berlin Airlift, and at SAC, LeMay succeeded where almost everyone else before him had failed. Far from being a loud-mouthed reactionary as the press finally presented him, LeMay was tough but quiet, and often compassionate, a military genius of the first order to whom we all owe a great deal of thanks. Kozak is be congratulated for reminding us of LeMay, the hero at a time when men like him were increasingly rare.
John Hale’s Lords of the Sea is an original attempt to understand the rise of Athenian democracy in terms of its fleet. What makes the book compelling is his knowledge of ancient naval technology and an interest in describing the nuts and bolts of trireme construction and use. Hale has spent a lifetime studying ancient ships, and that pragmatic sense grounds his history in a way we have not see before in studies of either Athenian democracy or naval matters.
Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy at the Gate is ostensibly a history of the Ottomans’ assault into central Europe, up and down the Danube — until, for a second time, in the summer of 1683, the Turks reached the gates of Vienna. While much of the later book on the Habsburg’s 18th century counter-campaign to retake European soil can become a tedious read, and while Wheatcroft now and then offers politically correct sermons about Islam that are at odds with the data in his narrative, the first two-thirds of his account are gripping, a near-brilliant description of the strategy, mentality, and zeal of the Ottomans as they slogged toward Vienna — and the heroic defense of Charles, Eugene, and the sudden appearance of the Polish cavalry. It is a 16th-century version of Stalingrad told by a great narrative stylist.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.
Winston Groom’s Vicksburg: 1863. The Washington Post — right for once — called it “brilliant.”
The Life of Marlborough, by Winston Churchill, when politics really was a blood sport.
JOHN J. MILLER
The Last Patriot, by Brad Thor, is like a National Treasure movie scripted by Vince Flynn — I listened to the audiobook recently and it made a long drive seem short. Empire of Lies, by Andrew Klavan, is an excellent war-on-terror thriller that also excoriates the mainstream media. Robert Ferrigno’s gripping alt-history trilogy on Islamic America, currently composed of Prayers for the Assassin and Sins of the Assassin, will culminate next month with the release of the highly anticipated Heart of the Assassin.
– John J. Miller is National Review’s national political reporter.
“Recommend books.” Hmmm . . . where does one begin or end? And yet I face the same beach-bag question in advance of every plane ride. So for better or for worse, here is my recommend list — a Sophie’s Choice of my current reading:
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. He certainly upsets all kinds of conventional wisdom on all kinds of matters, from culture to genetics. Also, it is an enjoyable read that one cannot put down. One actually learns why Asians are better at math! Or why South American pilots are more dangerous, and how the culture-class system of the U.S. contributes to having the best pilots.
Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. It is horrifying beyond anything the mind can imagine. It is the argument against atheism, and the warning. It is the book the frog needed to read before he got in the pot of cool water. The tactics of today’s Left are mirrored in Mao’s methods — censorship through ridicule, denunciation, big lies, control of population . . . and on and on. If you want to know where we are in danger of going, this is the book. Crazy you say? Not at all. Who would have envisaged what has happened to this country in six short months?
The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright. This brilliant book, which I am just now about to finish, is a masterwork. It details the great clash, the war of one civilization against another. Wright shatters every myth one may have had about Islam or al-Qaeda. He explains why most people have most things wrong about Saudi Arabia; he explains that the concept of a suicide bomber is a recent one, developed in recent years by al-Qaeda. He explains what we are up against. We have lost a sense of it. We did not understand it to begin with. And national health care, gay marriage, bailouts, cap-and-trade — all of this matters not a damn if we don’t get the Islam thing right. This is the book.
Of course, there is always P. G. Wodehouse. Oh, and I am considering Atlas Shrugged as a project for next year.
– Douglas Urbanski is an American theater impresario, raconteur, and film producer.
ORSON SCOTT CARD
This is the golden age of serious fantasy literature. Always the best fantasy writers strike off on their own, and their work now is coming to the fore. For the past 20 years, the creative energy of speculative fiction has been migrating from sci-fi to fantasy, and this summer is as good a time as any to catch up.
For instance, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is new but complete, so there’s no waiting to get the end of the story. The motley cast of talented misfits is trying to bring down a thousand-year empire (try to avoid thinking “reich”), but the heroes discover to their dismay that, bad as the empire was, it was holding back something even worse.
Or if you want to get in on the ground floor, look at Sanderson’s newest hardcover, Warbreaker — a whole new magic system, with graustarkian intrigue at the highest level.
Patrick Rothfuss creates a fascinating bildungsroman with his The Name of the Wind. It is extravagantly a “tale told in an inn” — each volume in the series is one night’s storytelling by a hero who insists he has retired from the business.
Lamentation, by Ken Scholes, begins with what looks like a nuclear explosion that destroys an entire city. Only one survivor walked away — a mechanical man named Isaak. He has no memory of what caused the explosion, but in the turmoil after the destruction, he becomes an observer and a participant in all the politics and warfare and magic. He begins to discover the secret behind all the magic — including his own existence.
These are merely some of the most recent. Once you realize how much excellent literature is scattered between the reefs of vampire novels in the sci-fi and fantasy section of the bookstore, you’ll enjoy prowling through the backlist.
Authors to look for:
Kate Elliot’s dark and beautiful Crown of Stars series, which puts us through the experience of being conquered by a ruthless and terrible enemy. (First volume: King’s Dragon.)
Lynn Flewelling’s devastating exploration of human identity in her Tamir trilogy, in which, to save her life, a royal girlchild is changed at the moment of her birth into a boy, while her twin brother is changed into a girl and then killed, so that the family’s enemies will be satisfied. This one act of dynastic cruelty destroys almost everybody — but Tamir manages to find her way to the destiny that was foreseen for her. (First volume: The Bone Doll’s Twin.)
Anything by Robin Hobb, who arguably set the standard for the modern serious fantasy novel. My favorite series is her Liveship Traders. (First volume: Ship of Magic.)
And other authors who will not disappoint you: James Maxey, David Farland, George R. R. Martin, Sherwood Smith, Sean Russell, David Gemmel; and in YA fantasy: Tanith Lee, David Lubar, Louis Sachar, Brandon Mull, Neal Shusterman, and Tamora Pierce.
– Orson Scott Card is a novelist and critic.
Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes is a look at Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, America’s most ambitious effort to raise achievement for poor black and Latino youths. Canada in particular is a fascinating figure: an erstwhile black nationalist who works closely with left-leaning social workers and right-leaning financial analysts to build a web of private social-service organizations so dense that no children in the neighborhood, in theory, are left behind. It helps that Tough is a vivid writer. I fought post–Fourth of July exhaustion to finish the book in one sitting.
My friend Karan Mahajan has just published his debut novel, Family Planning. It’s the story of a sprawling Delhi family told mostly through the lens of eldest son Arjun. Tremendously witty and buzzing with imagination, it reminds me of Philip Roth’s early work — only better.
And for the wonks among you, I recommend Steve Teles and Brian Glenn’s edited volume on Conservatism and American Political Development, a look at how the American Right has shaped the welfare state, both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s a sobering read and one that serves as a useful guide to future conservative policy-making efforts.
– Reihan Salam is author of the NRO’s The Agenda and co-author, with Ross Douthat, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
I’m assuming that I don’t need to tell NRO readers about Rick Brookhiser’s Right Time, Right Place, so here are three other books that I read with pleasure and profit:
Joseph Epstein, Fred Astaire. Witty, thoughtful, concentrated, and astute, this 198-page tribute goes a long way toward conveying the essential quality of an intensely private man who only seems to have come fully to life in the studio. Unlike most commentators, Epstein also pays proper attention to Astaire’s singing, but most of the book, as it should be, is devoted to his dancing — and, no less interestingly, the persona he projected in his films and TV appearances.
A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science and Other Writings. This omnibus, edited by Pete Hamill, is very nearly the best single-volume collection of Liebling’s domestic writings that could possibly be put together. It contains “The Sweet Science,” “The Earl of Louisiana,” “The Jollity Building,” “Between Meals,” and “The Press,” which between them cover all the bases. (Liebling’s wartime journalism has already been anthologized separately by the Library of America.) The New Yorker never had a better staff writer: Liebling’s prose was an exuberant, extroverted alloy of uptown and downtown, more or less what H. L. Mencken might have sounded like had he stuck to reporting instead of switching to the editorial page.
Frederic Spotts, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation. The first book-length study of how France’s culturati coped with the German occupation. The answer is in the title. Virtually all French artists played ball with the Nazis in one way or another, and some of the greatest (including the incomparable pianist Alfred Cortot) did their bidding with foul alacrity. Anyone naïve enough to think of artists as a nobler breed should read this book and weep.
– Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the libretto for The Letter, an opera by Paul Moravec that will be premiered by the Santa Fe Opera on July 25. His latest book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, will be published in December by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.