Shopping for Christmas already, and looking for something special for someone special? National Review Online asked some of our friends what might make a welcome holiday addition to the libraries of our readers’ loved ones this year. (Check in tomorrow for more cyber shopping suggestions.)
Pops, by Terry Teachout. NRO’s deadline is such that I haven’t read it yet. But I have known Terry for ages; he has been thinking about Louis Armstrong for years. Armstrong is a great genius, with an all-American life. I expect the best.
Golden-oldie: John Randolph of Roanoke, by Henry Adams. Put a goblin in your stocking for Christmas. In fact, put two! Go ahead, be immoral: enjoy this.
– Rick Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.
I would recommend Enemies of the People, by Kati Marton, for anyone who never learned, has forgotten, or needs a refresher course in the true horrors of Soviet oppression. It is about her parents, who were AP and UPI correspondents in Communist Hungary and were imprisoned by the regime. After reading the secret police’s massive files on her mother and father, Marton understood far more about her parents’ complex story. It is a cool, thoughtful memoir about family secrets and family love.
For pre-teen and teenage girls besotted by vampires, I’d suggest some books with gutsy heroines. Nowadays, girls’ tastes too often seem to run to novels where the heroines are passive, vapid, and love-sick — either that, or shopaholic mean girls. I’d start with Pride and Prejudice, of course, and Little Women, maybe even Anne of Green Gables and some Nancy Drew mysteries. Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March should entertain them and help them realize there is more to life for girls than wanting someone to suck your blood.
Although it is very, very late in the game and doesn’t provide 75,000 apps, I’d still suggest the ruby-red Blackberry Curve. For someone who may not be all that tech savvy, it is easy to use. And if you give it in a bright little carrying case, it is very easy to find in one’s handbag.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.
My 2009 recommendations include one book about an iconic children’s story and another about an iconic president. In Finding Oz, Evan Schwartz explores the life and times of Frank Baum, who published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, nearly 40 years before Judy Garland played Dorothy on the silver screen. In The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, James Mann offers an insightful and provocative analysis of Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War.
As for older books, I always urge sports fans to read Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s famous account of Permian High School’s 1988 football season, which was later made into a movie and subsequently inspired a fictional TV series. If you know someone who loved The Departed, give him or her Black Mass, the shocking tale of Boston-Irish gangster Whitey Bulger (who has spent years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list) and his corrupt relationship with law-enforcement officials. For a Lincoln obsessive, I would suggest Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, a collection of fascinating essays by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James McPherson.
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.
A fruitful gift book for anyone wondering whether we should be in Afghanistan: Taking “fruitful” to mean “a darn good read that left me much more knowledgeable about something,” I strongly recommend David Loyn’s In Afghanistan. Loyn, a BBC foreign correspondent for 30 years, really knows the territory. He is one of the very few people from Europe or North America to have seen Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. In October 2006, he actually spent a few days as an imbed with the Taliban in northern Helmland, where they were fighting against the British. Some British press commentators have called for Loyn to be tried for treason on this account. A faction of the Taliban, on the other hand, wanted to kill him, but: “My security was the Pashtun honor code. . . . My host, Mullah Abdul Manan, the overall military commander of the Taliban, told them if they wanted to kill me they would have to kill him first.”
Loyn fills in all the history: it turns out to be even more repetitively blood-curdling than you thought, with a cast of exceptionally colorful characters, both Afghan and foreign. Charlie Wilson was by no means the first of his kind; nor is Mullah Omar the first of his. Warning: If you support our current mission in Afghanistan, your approval will likely not survive a reading of this book.
A classic worth giving new reading life to for any intelligent pre-teen: Penrod, by Booth Tarkington. When I was around ages eight to eleven, my favorite reading matter was the William books of Richmal Crompton. William Brown was a pre-teen middle-class English boy waging guerrilla war against the adult world of convention, respectability, organized activities, and clean fingernails — an English Tom Sawyer, in fact. His adventures eventually filled 38 books. When I told an American friend about this, she passed on Penrod to me, in the 2007 Penguin Classics edition (not listed on Amazon for some reason). Penrod Schofield is of the same kidney as William and Tom. Aged eleven-coming-on-twelve, he lives in the American Midwest around 1910, and conducts boyish assaults on the bourgeois order. He is a principal in, for example, the Great Tar Fight, “the origin of which proved . . . so difficult for parents to trace . . . The barber did not begin it; it was the fly on the barber’s nose that began it — though, of course, something else began the fly . . . ” A lost world, wonderfully brought to life by the author of The Magnificent Ambersons.
A Non-book item for anyone with a dozen or more website passwords scrawled in a notebook somewhere: RoboForm. Are you bedeviled, as I was, by the problem of generating and keeping track of passwords to a score or more of different websites? You think “steve092376” is any kind of a secure password? Mine now look like this: “m!k4Xn98Ag$mQqP%.” Now that’s a password. (“Bit strength 98” says the generator. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds real good, and I fall asleep easily at nights murmuring it to myself.) No need to remember the dang thing, either — RoboForm takes care of that. Which is just as well. E6j$P&q94Fy8elph . . . YsP$2pP6hNK%G7Bh . . . feJ#FvreVctz5YZx . . . Go on, hack me, you buggers!
— John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist and author, most recently, of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.
Books for Christmas?! Like a helping of broccoli, every kid should get one. (If only because books don’t need batteries!) Granted, the tome will likely be accepted with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old when he opens a box, sees a sweater, and tosses it over his shoulder grumbling, “Stupid clothes.” Stupid books, too. Poor kid — he only got 17 toys on Christmas morning! But, someday that brat — I mean precious little pumpkin — will actually have to read something. Or: have something read to him. So do not — repeat, do not – forgo the book as a necessary gift.
For that I nominate The National Review Treasury of Classic Bedtime Stories. Volumes One and Two – they include all 20 of Thornton Burgess’s great stories of a menagerie of woodland creatures. They’re called “bedtime” tales because they were written to be such. Each of the 20 tales unfolds more than two dozen chapters. So if Little Johnny is a new reader, he can handle a few chapters before he goes to sleep. Or if Little Janey is too young to read, but wants Momma to read her a story before lights out, well, this is ideal.
Great stories, wholesome stories, instructive and moral stories — there’s a reason millions of copies of Burgess’s tales were bought back in the Teens and Roaring Twenties. The mystery is why they are not still a staple of kids literature. Well, we’ve tried to make up for that. So there you have a great Christmas gift for some good children’s literature that will, sooner or later, be most appreciated.
A while back we collected Florence King’s “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns into STET, Damnit! Doesn’t exactly yell fa–la–la–la–la at you, does it? Agreed, but — if there’s a curmudgeon on your shopping list, especially one who likes excellent writing, this book is the perfect gift. All the writing in this book is “old” — Florence’s last MC column appeared in 2002. But not one word of it is dated. D*mn! Florence can write! Share her with someone who crankily deserves your season’s greeting.
Is there a Marine in your life? Well then, try sticking this in his stocking (he’d better have big feet!): a copy of Semper Fi: The Definitive Illustrated History of the U.S. Marines, by Col. H. Avery Chenoweth and Brooke Nihart. I reviewed it a few years back in NR and wrote: “Warfare and death, from the Barbary Coast to Wake Island to Fallujah, are at the Corps’s core, and are captured in this informative, well-designed, strapping (seven pounds!) paean to all things Leatherneck. Teeming with colorful illustrations and engaging sidebars — military art, maps, battle photographs, recruitment posters, uniforms, campaign accounts, medals, insignia, weaponry, and the like — the book fascinates, and humbles. The bios of Medal of Honor winners give one pause; to think there are men so brave.” I still look through it regularly. This is the kind of book you can get lost in for days. Shock and awe them!
My favorite humorous novel is A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Jacques Reilly, its central character, is surely the most unusual character in modern American literature — smart, naïve, calculating, and a boob. Walker Percy described him as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” The other New Orleans oddballs concocted by John Kennedy Toole (the author, who committed suicide a decade before the book was published and posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction) give Ignatius a run for his money. If you don’t mind laughing out loud in public, get it for yourself. You shouldn’t have just a lump of coal to play with.
Listen to the traditional Christmas carols and you hear plenty of melancholy (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” isn’t so . . . merry). Assuming that not all the halls of our souls should be decked in holly, I’d put under the tree the new and uncensored version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic, In The First Circle. And I’ve just reread his other classic (has he written a book that can’t be described as such?), Cancer Ward, and most heartily recommend it. So stunning in translation, one can only wonder how these books sing in their native Russian. If you’d like a buffet of the Nobel Prize–winner’s best works, I recommend The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings. Published by ISI Books in 2005, it is co-edited by my great pal Dan Mahoney, who, along with Edward Ericson, has done the Lord’s work trying to remind the West of Solzhenitsyn’s literary greatness.
Enough of books. You can never go wrong with a Swiss Army knife, and my favorite is the Victorinox Swiss Card. It is very cool and has got everything you need — from a pen and a pin to a knife and scissors — and it’s so compact you can really put it in your wallet. Which stinks when you realize you’ve left it there as you’re going through airport screening. Alas, it’s worth that risk.
The publisher told me not to forget the most obvious gift: a full-year subscription to National Review!
– Jack Fowler is publisher of National Review.
In the midst of my Iraq deployment, I sent my wife (through Amazon.com) the unabridged, hardcover version of Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables. This is, to put it simply, a book for hard times. Hugo’s masterpiece doesn’t just tell an epic tale, it shows us what it means to live a life of dignity, integrity, honor, and self-sacrifice. As we fight two wars, as we battle through from paycheck to paycheck at home, and as we look at a culture and see virtue and truth sometimes slipping from sight, it is easy to “grow weary in well-doing” (to borrow from Saint Paul). Jean Valjean’s tale reminds us of the best part of ourselves, teaches us endurance and patience, and reminds us — always — of our desperate need for grace.
From a historical standpoint, it gives us a glimpse of a France that once was, full of misguided passion but alive and vibrant in a way we may never see again. From the spiritual standpoint, it not only shows us what it means to live with virtuous courage, but it also takes time to explain the glory and power of the simple act of prayer, how small acts of mercy can transform lives, and what it means for a parent to truly love a child. The book is almost 1,500 pages long, but that makes it barely longer than the most recent Harry Potter.
And well worth your time.
— David French is a senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and director of its Center for Academic Freedom.