Culture

Beach Blanket Bibliophilia

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Our annual survey of what NR contributors are reading over the summer.

The publishing version of “busman’s holiday” might be “editor’s holiday,” since most people we know in the industry think days off are meant for catching up on their reading. From a selection of National Review contributors whose vocation is their avocation and, in summer, their vacation, here are some recommendations for books to make one’s summer pleasant, enlightening, or both.

 

RICHARD BROOKHISER

There has been a flurry of good books about Jamestown since the quadricentennial eleven years back. The latest is 1619, by James Horn, who hones in on a year marked by two signal events: the arrival of the White Lion, a privateer carrying the first African slaves to the colony, and the first meeting of the proto–House of Burgesses. Slavery and democracy: problem and (sometimes) solution.

In the early 19th century two lions of the Senate, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, made heroic efforts to prevent the coming explosion, while a third lion, John Calhoun, lit matches and sprayed gasoline. H. W. Brands tells their stories in Heirs of the Founder with his characteristic blend of sweep and telling detail.

For a great classic, New York Review Books has published Alex Andriesse’s new translation of the first third of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave. It is an interesting slice of life, from 1768 to 1800, covering two revolutions, ours and France’s. Chateaubriand was a minor Norman aristocrat and major talent, knocked sideways by history. Proust was inspired by his play of memory. (Sometimes his memory is false: Did he really trade cattle with the Indians in Florida?) The flow of his narrative is studded with brilliant vignettes: Mirabeau, Danton, the Rousseau-inspired tender-hearts who fed the guillotine, and, best of all, George Washington:

Silence envelops Washington’s deeds. He moved cautiously; one could say that he felt charged with the liberty of future generations and feared compromising it. It was not his own destiny that this new species of hero carried; it was the destiny of his country. He did not permit himself to enjoy what did not belong to him, and from this profound humility, what light bursts forth! Look around the forests where Washington’s sword once gleamed, and what do you find? Tombstones? No, a world!

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court.

 

NANCY FRENCH

Ever been dumped?

According to psychologist Matthew Lieberman, that type of pain is more significant than we tend to believe. In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Lieberman explains that connecting with each other is a basic, primal need — even more necessary than food or clothing. When those connections dissolve, we call it “heartbreak.” And that’s not just typical American hyperbole; around the globe, people use physical-pain terminology to describe social pain.

We all intuitively know that love hurts.

Lieberman explains that this is true in a real way, not just in a metaphorical, rock-ballad-type way. Using neuroimaging studies, he shows that a broken heart can derail us from our normal lives in the same way as a broken bone. He even claims that social pain damages our health as much as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. That’s because physical and social pain are much more similar neurologically than we think: The same areas of the brain “light up” in when a person experiences either type.

Considering this, a group of researchers tested whether ­acetaminophen — the active ingredient in over-the-counter Tylenol — could relieve emotional pain in the same way it relieves physical pain. Since ­acetaminophen targets pain symptoms only (and doesn’t cause any feelings of euphoria), it seemed unlikely to do so. But, shockingly, the pain-killer mitigated the angst of social pain.

Because we need each other for survival, our brains make it painful to separate from the tribe. Our need of, and inclination to respond to, each other even affects our political decisions. Though we like to think we select our candidates based on issues such as immigration or taxes, that’s not always the case.

For example, in the second 1984 presidential debate, the moderator asked President Ronald Reagan — who would take office for his second term at 73 years old — about age. Famously, he replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience — even 56-year-old Walter Mondale — laughed. Mondale later said this was the moment when he knew he would lose the election.

However, social researchers later played two different versions of the debate to people who hadn’t seen it. Those who heard the audience’s laughter — like the rest of America — thought Reagan had won handily. But those who listened without the audience soundtrack thought Mondale had won.  In other words, we’re so programmed to respond to other people’s impressions that the laughter of a few random strangers in the audience swayed the political perceptions of the viewing nation.

This utter dependence might seem like a biological glitch in our systems, but Lieberman says it’s actually a critical survival feature. It’s time to face the fact that we’re designed to connect with others — yes, even you — and to be more mindful of this in our increasingly disconnected, polarized world.

Nancy French is a four-time New York Times best-selling author and a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

 

JIM GERAGHTY

A fiction-writing project has me researching a lot of the darker chapters of not-so-distant American history, leaving my desk piled high with books that aren’t quite the usual light and fun summer reading.

I started with Andrew Gumbel and Roger Charles’s Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed — and Why It Still Matters, which lays out a really unnerving and compelling array of evidence that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols probably had additional co-conspirators who never saw the inside of a courtroom. At the very least, it seems that a lot of people in militia circles knew “something” was going to happen on the second anniversary of the Waco inferno. This is not a conspiracy-theory book; the authors dismiss most of the speculation about assistance from foreign governments and/or the U.S. government allowing the attacks to happen — although there are troubling stories suggesting that some people in U.S. law enforcement also expected “something” to occur on April 19, 1995.

A little further back, we have Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence — the most complete history of the political violence perpetrated by groups such as the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, FALN, and the Black Liberation Army. Early on, Burrough quotes retired FBI agent Max Noel: “People have completely forgotten that in 1972, we had over 1900 domestic bombings in the United States. People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

I’m just starting Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, which is the definitive look at the Peoples Temple cult in San Francisco and how the line between it and “respectable” elected officials got awfully blurred for long stretches. Jones lured all kinds of people in with elaborate promises of a better, more charitable vision of society, and was praised by the likes of former first lady Rosalynn Carter, former vice president Walter Mondale, former and current California governor Jerry Brown, and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Jones’s story ended in a horrific, tragic madness.

All this dark nonfiction stuff left me ravenous for Brad Thor’s latest thriller novel featuring Scot Harvath, Spymaster. As I wrote in the Morning Jolt, Spymaster shifts Harvath’s attention from jihadists to Russian spy rings in Europe — a modern Cold War 2.0 thriller, with an unnervingly plausible plot about Moscow aiming to destabilize NATO, and potential Crimea-style military operations looming over the horizon. I read it all in one sitting — living up to the “impossible to put down” label.

Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

 

JOHN J. MILLER

Call me an oddball for asking it, but here’s a question that I tossed out at a dinner party recently: Who is Michigan’s greatest statesman? The mind turns almost automatically to Gerald Ford. He occupied a high office, and his presidential pardon of Richard Nixon was statesmanlike: It was probably good for America and almost certainly bad for his career. A friend proposed Austin Blair, the Civil War governor who helped found the Republican party. Then he commented that Blair should be the subject of a book. That may be true. My own suggestion was Senator Arthur Vandenberg (1884–1951), mostly because I had fallen under the spell of a new book that really does exist, thanks to biographer Hendrik Meijer. Full of gripping history, sharp analysis, and amusing anecdotes, Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century turns its subject into a three-dimensional character who mixed power and vanity with thriftiness and idealism, becoming a proto-neoconservative who helped usher the GOP and the United States onto the international stage at the start of the Cold War.

Speaking of Michigan, I also enjoyed The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne. A novel of captivity, survival, and escape, it takes place in the Upper Peninsula. Two more excellent thrillers, neither set in my home state: The Blood Strand, by Chris Ould, an engaging crime novel that takes place on the remote but fascinating Faroe Islands, about halfway between Scotland and Iceland; and Spymaster, the latest national-security page-turner from Brad Thor (who podcasted with me here).

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review, the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, and the author of Reading Around.

 

MOLLY POWELL

Summer is meant for stolen pleasures and late-night swims by moonlight. If you can’t manage that, or post-swim, pick up Winston Churchill’s My Early Life: 1874–1904. You’ll never have more fun reading a great work by a great man. Churchill wrote it after World War I, in 1930, and it covers only the first 30 years of his life. But what a 30 years it was. The man had more lives than a cat, and as many sides to his personality. In this memoir, he practically gets up off the page and invites himself to your garden for a glass of Pol Roger, after which he’ll tell you (with charming modesty) about that time he was locked in a Boer prison, from which he made his escape through the window of a latrine and armed only with a bar of chocolate, only to later become a great friend of the very man, General Botha, who had taken him prisoner. And speaking of cats, Churchill was a softie who adored them, as well as dogs, foxes, turtles, ladybugs, and sundry creatures, wild and tame.

Which brings me to another summer-fun pick: Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book. I inexplicably missed these while growing up and feared they might be thin fare as adult fiction. On the contrary, Mowgli and his animal friends and enemies are unforgettable. It’s impossible not to feel stirred in a deep way as we see the boy grow up and learn the hard lessons of life and death, love and betrayal, sacrifice and honor. Get the Pook Press edition of the 1894 collection, which has evocative illustrations by Kipling’s own father.

Continuing the outdoor and coming-of-age themes: Don’t forget Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you haven’t reread it as an adult, read it now before the intersectionalists erase it from history. It’s a work of pure American genius — challenging, strange, mournful, morally complex, brutal, and hilarious at the same time.

Finally, another pick in the always useful how-to-grow-up-and-live-well category: Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The many vitriolic naysayers made me curious, and I’m glad they did. If Biblical scholars and deep thinkers find him shallow, they are wiser than I. In my copy, many pages are now dog-eared and many lines underscored in pencil. Vivacious, inquisitive, and kind, he makes a good companion when facing challenges large and small. Plus — more animal love! — his twelfth rule is almost golden: “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

Molly Powell is an associate editor of National Review Online.

 

DAVID PRYCE-JONES

Last Stories” is the rather humdrum title that the publisher Penguin Random House has slapped on William Trevor’s final collection of short stories. He died not long ago at the age of 88. His short stories are very far from humdrum. On the contrary, he was able to draw out of ordinary people the fears and hopes of their lives. To read this master of the art is to have a lump in the throat and a smile on the lips.

Cressida Connolly’s novel After the Party is set in Chamberlain’s Britain, with Hitler’s Germany emerging just over the horizon, breathing fire and brimstone. Some privileged but not very bright friends misunderstand what’s happening out there. This is a well-told fable about how people come to make political and social choices. I have an interest to declare. Years ago, I was writing a book about Cyril Connolly, the literary critic and father of Cressida. He asked her to recite a particular nursery rhyme. “I don’t know it,” the five-year-old Cressida said, “but I do know one about the Grand Old Duke of York.” She’s moved on well.

Defectors to the Soviet Union were a weird lot, a menagerie of misfits. Donald Maclean was as weird as any. An upper-class Englishman, he was an alcoholic given to violence, and a member of the British Foreign Office. Posted in the British embassy in Washington, he handed literally hundreds of secret documents to Stalin’s KGB, a betrayal that also did great harm to the United States. Roland Philipps has written A Spy Named Orphan, a biography with new material. He also has insights into the psychological mystery of why so many turn against their country when it has given them everything it has to give.

Agnès Poirier is an Anglo-French journalist. Her Left Bank, subtitled “Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–1950,” is high-powered literary and artistic gossip, very well done. Collaborating with the Germans during the war, and anti-American and pro-Soviet after it, most French intellectuals were morally derelict. Awful people to meet, but it is most enjoyable to read about their faults and their fates.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of  National Review.

 

TEVI TROY

I suspect I will not be the only contributor to this symposium to recommend Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West — but I won’t let that stop me. It is required reading, and will likely enter the pantheon of essential conservative works. You’re going to have to read it to be part of the conversation: This summer is as good a time as any.

Jonathan Neumann’s To Heal the World? is another worthy read. Neumann looks at the concept of tikkun olam (“repairing the world,” in Hebrew) and how it has taken over certain segments of American Judaism. Neumann shows that the phrase’s current manifestation is not just a modern interpretation but also a misunderstanding of an ancient Talmudic precept. As he astutely writes,“Tikkun Olam is not what it means to be an American Jew; it is what it means to be an American liberal.”

Amy Chozick’s Chasing Hillary is a memoir of her time following Hillary Clinton across the 2008 and 2016 campaigns. It’s less an inside take on those campaigns and more a look at Chozick’s experience covering them. One highlight is Chozick’s humorous yet disturbing description of “The Guys,” Hillary’s semi-interchangeable and often rude press lackeys. Chozick left them unnamed, piquing my curiosity, so I was grateful to Politico’s “Playbook” for identifying them here.

“The Guys” would benefit from reading Mona Charen’s Sex Matters. It is a fascinating look at how the blurring of gender lines has made things difficult for both men and women, but especially for women. In addition to being a good read, the book has the benefit of good timing, as the #MeToo phenomenon has raised all kinds of questions about relations between the sexes. When Mona was on C-SPAN’s Q&A with Brian Lamb, he played a montage of powerful men who had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. Lamb called it the longest piece of video ever played on Q&A. That in and of itself is telling.

Another kind of inappropriate behavior takes place in the form of backbiting among those in positions of power. Donald Rumsfeld’s When the Center Held is a memoir of his days as chief of staff in the rivalrous Ford administration. In one instance, territorial aides withheld a key speech from White House economist Alan Greenspan until the day of the address. When he finally saw it, he spotted half a dozen errors, which he had to scramble to correct. As Greenspan said after, “It was surreal. I was the only economist present, and I said to myself, . . .‘What am I doing here?’” Greenspan would hardly be the first White House aide to think that, nor was he the last.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His most recent book is Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.

 

HEATHER WILHELM

If you’re looking for a light summer read, I recommend starting with one of my all-time favorites: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. This book is engagingly loopy, following one young man’s shallow and surprisingly successful quest to game the American literary system with an over-the-top work of formulaic fiction. (This is all driven, I should add, by our antihero’s burning desire to one-up an ex-girlfriend at her upcoming wedding.) It’s a quick-reading satire that takes on everything from best-seller lists to literary pretension to today’s frenetic media world — and even ends with a sliver of warmth layered over the book’s hilariously icy heart.

Educated, a new memoir by Tara Westover, is not exactly a beach read — the story of Westover’s harrowing childhood with her survivalist Idaho family is at turns searing, grim, and darkly fascinating — but it’s certainly worthwhile. In the end, the book explores powerful themes surrounding identity, family, the stubborn staying power of one’s upbringing, and the many hidden possibilities found in the wider world.

Speaking of possibilities and the wider (interstellar) world, Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover is one of the most endearing adult-friendly children’s books I’ve read in a long time (along with, of course, the glorious identity-swap classic Miss Nelson Is Missing). Delightful illustrations flank this short yet jam-packed book describing the sheer marvel and occasional nail-biting terror of a recent project that flew under the radar of many Americans: The act of sending a robot hurtling through space to Mars, almost 350 million miles away.

Curiosity can double as a coffee-table book, which is good news for me, given that I have a serious problem when it comes to compulsively purchasing interesting coffee-table books. One of the best I’ve recently picked up comes in two volumes: Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. Whether you browse occasionally or plow all the way through, it is a fascinating read, reprinting funny and touching and sometimes scathing letters from writers ranging from Dorothy Parker to Leonardo da Vinci to (yikes) Jack the Ripper.

Finally, I recently read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for the first time. It’s the tale of a “search” — a search “anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” This slim novel is contemplative, multilayered, and perfect for summer reading.

Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist.

Correction: This symposium originally identified Anka Muhlstein as the translator of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave. Alex Andriesse is the translator.

NRO Staff — Members of the National Review Online editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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