Politics & Policy

What They Want for Christmas

Mostly good books plus a few DVDs, and the soundtrack of a classic radio show.

Every year about this time, friends and family of National Review Online help you with suggestions for your Christmas list. And so, for your consideration, . . .


Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe. I was talking with a friend who asked if Wolfe would be regarded as the 20th/21st-century Dickens. I said he is colder than Dickens; one of his self-proclaimed models was another journalist-turned-novelist, Thackeray. Wolfe is our Thackeray, minus the tears — that is, very cold indeed. He depicts a God-less world in which people console themselves with status and sex (which actually torment as much as they console). This time the setting is Miami. There is a cast of dozens; the main characters are Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American cop, and his former girlfriend, Magdalena Otero. Nestor lives for duty, which somehow slips past Wolfe’s categories as something good in itself; but the heart of the novel is the tragedy of Magdalena’s bad choices.

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I don’t much like the Mitford sisters — and I’m not even talking about the Communist and Nazi ones. There, I said it. Nancy was the best of the lot. But the family argot — shrieked! do admit! body worship! — becomes tiresome. Deborah is a — what is the feminine of twit? — twitess. Her correspondent and lifelong friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, however, is one of the past century’s originals. His erudition, his quirky humor, his gusto, and his understated bravery are worth the price of admission.

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris, edited by J. Jackson Barlow. Not for Founding Father specialists — not even for Federalist-party specialists. This is for Gouverneur Morris specialists. The high point of the book is the section (pages 428 through 431) in which Morris, in a pseudonymous newspaper essay, dissects his peers and partisan opponents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He knew both men — Madison from the Constitutional Convention, Jefferson from serving him as minister to France when Jefferson was secretary of state and then, as a senator, watching him when Jefferson was vice president (and president of the Senate). He liked Jefferson personally; Madison, not so much. But his analysis of the character and motives of both men is unsparing. This is the maximum sustainable hostile view — still worth reading 200-plus years later.

— Richard Brookhiser is senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of James Madison.


After a contentious election season — with, for conservatives, a dispiriting outcome — here are my picks for Christmas books that can connect us with an eternal perspective this holiday season:

Saint Teresa of Avila, by Marcelle Auclair. My father gave me this book when I was a college student not terribly interested in the lives of the saints or in a deeper literary exploration of my Catholic faith. Auclair’s gripping biography of Teresa of Avila changed that.

The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. There’s no substitute for reading the feisty, engaging Carmelite reformer and mystic in her own words, and this collection is a perfect way to encounter Teresa in all her holy boldness.

Therese, by Dorothy Day. This was another pivotal book in my spiritual journey. If we consider only the surfaces of their life stories, the bohemian Day and the bourgeois Thérèse of Lisieux may seem an unlikely match, but both share an appreciation of hidden grace and a belief in the power of little souls to change the world.

Story of a Soul, by Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. Thérèse’s signature work, written under obedience before her death at age 24, became a worldwide bestseller and helped make this cloistered Carmelite nun a doctor of the Catholic Church and one of the most beloved saints in history. Read it at least twice; profound truths are hidden beneath the surface of Thérèse’s florid prose.

Essays on Woman, volume 2 of The Collected Works of Edith Stein, translated by Freda Mary Oben. Many are familiar with Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and his call for a “new feminism,” but few know about the deep resonance between his writings and those of Edith, a saint whom he canonized. The insights of this Catholic philosopher and Auschwitz martyr are as relevant to women today as ever.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, journalist, television host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture, and former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. Her newest book is My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir.


Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel. Your enjoyment of this NRO symposium has a lot to do with physical events in your brain, but it’s not the events in your brain. Subjective experience will forever elude explanation by the physical sciences. So argues Thomas Nagel, who teaches philosophy at NYU. He has been refuting materialist reductionism for many years. It’s false, he maintains, and when it’s joined to Darwinism it makes that false too. He applauds proponents of intelligent design for identifying flaws in evolutionary theory. Calm down: Their alternative theories, he thinks, have flaws of their own. Nagel is an atheist but not an antitheist in any militant sense. He might even be described as an anti-antitheist. For “a dominant scientific naturalism” that is “armed to the teeth against attacks from religion,” he seeks to “extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable.” He even proposes that teleology is true. If he’s right, life is purpose-driven after all.

— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of  National Review .


The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, by Robert R. Reilly. In the ninth century, the Islamic world underwent a theological crisis at the intersection of faith and reason. Unlike Christianity (and particularly Catholic Christianity), which teaches that faith and reason ultimately agree and that the one informs the other, Islam began to see God as pure will to whom man owes unquestioning obedience. Reliance on reason was seen to imply lack of faith, and even today that notion affects the Islamist worldview. The implication for foreign policy is obvious: How do you negotiate and reason with someone whose worldview fundamentally rejects reason?

The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, by Diana West. The premise of the author’s work is that there has been a national decline of adulthood, replaced with a permanent class of adolescence. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How did American society get to this point?” you might want to read the answer West has to offer.

Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, by Elizabeth Marquardt. The author, herself the product of divorce, conducted a pioneering national study that involved in-depth interviews with scores of young adults who grew up in families affected by divorce. When parents divorce, the two adults no longer have to negotiate differences so as to present their children with some semblance of a unified worldview. Instead, as mom and dad go their separate ways, their differing beliefs, attitudes, rules, and parenting styles mean that the child lives not only between two different homes but literally in two different worlds, never really feeling a part of either.

Why Enough Is Never Enough: Overcoming Worries about Money—a Catholic Perspective, by Gregory S Jeffrey. Forget about the subtitle; the publisher insisted on it in the hope of increasing sales. Rather, this book is an attempt at a theology of money, with two underlying premises: Our spiritual life is inextricably bound up with our material life, in ways most people have not yet begun to consider, and our attitude toward money is the area of life least examined and, consequently, the one where we lie to ourselves the most.

 For example, in chapter 4, where Jeffrey speaks of giving as a spiritual act, he discusses the difference between almsgiving and taxes, even in cases where taxes are for noble purposes.

‐Almsgiving softens the heart toward the recipient; taxes harden the heart.

‐Almsgiving is accompanied by a sincere concern about those served by the gift; not so with taxes.

‐With almsgiving, the donor enters into a sense of community with those his money serves. In contrast, through taxes we come to see ourselves and others in terms of makers and takers.

‐Almsgiving does what taxes cannot: It slowly changes the character of the donor.

 We just finished a brutal election cycle that focused on — money. It’s time for some fresh thinking on the topic.

Gregory S. Jeffrey is a development consultant in North Dakota.


The year 2013 will mark the rapid drawdown of our troops in and of our commitment to Afghanistan. What that means and why success in the handover is so iffy can be gleaned from three works of nonfiction and two novels, each of which would make for a great present under the tree. Give all five and your recipient will be the smartest person in the room who has never been to Afghanistan.

From the nonfiction side:

The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, by Jake Tapper, is a gripping narrative of one very far forward combat outpost over the three years of its existence. Tapper is best known as a relentlessly fair White House correspondent who ought to be the anchor of This Week, but this heart-wrenching and inspiring tale reminds us that Tapper is a fine, fine writer and reporter even as it fills the reader with foreboding about what comes next in Afghanistan.

As does Little America: The War Within the War in Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The author, a reporter for the Washington Post, made almost three dozen trips to the war zone over the past few years, and his account of what went wrong, as well as what went right, conveys that the war doesn’t have to be lost or Afghanistan given back to the Taliban, but it arrives very late in the debate.

In The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post covers the secret war, the one waged by the CIA, which battles bravely on the front lines of Afghanistan, at considerable danger to its agents. This book captures that conflict while conveying as well why the enemy is so deadly an opponent.

Some people just won’t read nonfiction, though, and for them, and as a supplement to the books above, the latest Mitch Rapp novel, The Last Man, by Vince Flynn, does a great deal to convey the complexities of the secret war for Afghanistan, especially when it comes to Pakistan’s role and that of the ISI within Pakistan. Flynn is a master storyteller, and he teaches as well as entertains.

As does Steven Pressfield in The Afghan Campaign, a novel of Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan in 330 b.c. Pressfield’s novel is popular with one of the heroes of Tapper’s saga and is the place to end or begin a course of reading on that country.

All of these authors have been my guests on air. The transcripts of our often long conversations are available at the transcripts page at HughHewitt.com and are cheat sheets, teasers for the real knowledge to be gained from reading the books. I can’t imagine that anyone who hasn’t been to Afghanistan could have a reasonable opinion on it without having read them all. When someone starts talking about what we should do there, ask him if he has read any of them.

Hugh Hewitt is a nationally syndicated radio host.


Among books with not-so-great covers, The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt, by Joe Loconte, is simply the best that I’ve read in a decade. And it’s practically the perfect gift, because you can give it to just about anyone. Rare is that person for whom this gem is not just right! Loconte’s winsome, charming, passionate, and beautiful way of talking about the very thing that makes us human — our struggle for meaning in the universe — is without equal anywhere. I have already given this book to scores of people. Loconte talked about the book at Socrates in the City back in the spring.

My personal Book of the Year Award goes to A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, by Os Guinness. In an election year, and in a clear and elegant way that I’m deeply sorry to say I’ve never witnessed before, Guinness explains the one thing that every American must — must — know to really be an American and that so very very few do know today, God help us. He makes plain how the Founders structured our fragile and ordered freedom and what we must know about it to sustain it, lest “the last best hope of earth” be lost. That is what is at stake. Anyone with a brain or a conscience must blush crimson to be unfamiliar with this book. No pressure.

Thoughts to Make Your Hearts Sing, by Sally Lloyd Jones. This happily ends the question of what you will give that young person this Christmas. Sally has brilliantly followed up her already-classic Jesus Storybook Bible with this magnificent volume, which is as pitch-perfect in tone as it gets. So get it. Got it? You’re welcome.

And for any baseball fans in your life, hustle — go, go, go! down that third-base line to score Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, the memoir by R. A. Dickey, winner of the 2012 National League Cy Young Award. The best baseball book since The Glory of Their Times. Dickey’s sparkling story of struggling through the hell of childhood abuse and the lower circles of Minor League Purgatory all the way to the very Paradiso of the sport’s highest pitching honor — and did we mention with a humble knuckleball? — is so quintessentially American that it will make you cheer. Unless you’re a humbug. Which I know you ain’t.

Merry Christmas!

Eric Metaxas‘s new book is No Pressure, Mr. President!


I’d like to suggest four books and one DVD as edifying stocking fillers for the NRO annual gift symposium.

At the risk of engaging in self-promotion, I will recommend my own latest offering, Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Hobbit, hot off the press (Saint Benedict Press, to be exact) and published to coincide with the imminent release of the first of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. In Bilbo’s Journey I uncover the profoundly Christian dynamic of that perennial bestseller, The Hobbit.

The Quotable Newman, compiled by Dave Armstrong. It might not be, as advertised in the subtitle, “a definitive guide” to the “central thoughts and ideas” of Blessed John Henry Newman, but it does nonetheless serve as an excellent introduction to the great man’s philosophy and theology.

In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G. K. Chesterton, edited by Dale Ahlquist. Here is an excellent collection of the finest essays by this finest of essayists.

The Hound of Distributism, edited by Richard Aleman. A collection of essays on the political philosophy of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc — and an excellent place to discover the contemporary relevance of Catholic social teaching. Whether one is an impassioned advocate of the subsidiarity espoused by distributists or merely a curious and dispassionate student of political philosophy, this volume will prove enlightening.

Finally, I must encourage everyone to see The War of the Vendée, a charming and moving film about “the forgotten martyrs of the French Revolution.” In an age when secular fundamentalism is once again threatening religious liberty, the example of the courageous peasants of the Vendée will prove an inspiration and provide an infusion of much-needed encouragement to all Christians.  

— Joseph Pearce is a professor of literature at Ave Maria University.


My gift recommendations for Christmas range from serious to humorous to entertaining.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum. In this outstanding new book, Applebaum describes in often painful detail how Stalin and his army of secret-police killers and torturers set out to crush all resistance and opposition in the occupied countries of Eastern Europe. As the Iron Curtain descended, so did a second living hell for the citizens of countries who had already experienced another hell under the Nazis. The Soviets and their collaborators bullied, threatened, tortured, and murdered to establish the Communist dictatorships that controlled Eastern Europe for 40 long years. Reading Applebaum’s book, I once again realized how lucky my parents were to have escaped such serfdom, and how smart and daring my Russian father was when he fled across Europe ahead of Soviet troops headed for the American-occupied sector of Germany.

If you have friends who are still despondent about the election, I recommend a DVD of classic Bugs Bunny cartoons — there is nothing better to bring them out of their depression. But be sure you get the DVD that includes “Ballot Box Bunny” (1951), the best short ever made about elections. When Yosemite Sam campaigns for mayor, Bugs runs against him, and mayhem results. For all of us who suffered through the last nine months of one of the meanest, nastiest campaigns ever, all of the dirty tricks that Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny play on each other in their quest to win will seem familiar. Some things never change.

My final recommendation is a CD of the Gunsmoke radio show. Gunsmoke ran on radio from 1952 to 1961 and was the forerunner of the TV show. It was one of the best-written shows ever produced in the long history of radio. Marshal Matt Dillon was voiced by William Conrad (who later played Frank Cannon on the TV show Cannon), and Doc Adams was voiced by Howard McNear (who played Floyd the barber on The Andy Griffith Show). If you have large blocks of time when you travel or commute to work, this series will keep you well entertained.

There it is, my Christmas list for reading, watching, and listening.

— Hans von Spakovsky is senior legal fellow and manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


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