For the past five years, based on the initial suggestion of the resourceful Kathryn Jean Lopez, I’ve had the privilege of closing out the year with NRO readers, looking back on the books that made an impression on me. For this year’s holiday retrospective, I want to take a slightly different tack, and take you, Dear Reader, on a tour of notable books by starting with a few key categories I know NRO readers would enjoy.
In the category of U.S. presidents, Bob Spitz has written a new biography of Ronald Reagan, Reagan: An American Journey. Previous Reagan books have typically emphasized only one part of Reagan’s life — Reagan in Hollywood, Reagan the governor, or Reagan the president. Spitz, in contrast, does a good job of looking at all three phases. Given my own interest in tracking and writing about presidential reading, I appreciated Spitz’s description of Reagan’s political formation in the 1950s. Spitz talks about Reagan’s appreciation for both Human Events and National Review. He also relates a few stories about the different ways that White House aides sought to remove Human Events from the presidential reading pile. Fortunately, NR seems to have escaped those attempts at intellectual censorship.
The second worthwhile Reagan book comes from one of his press aides, Mark Weinberg. Movie Nights with the Reagans goes through Weinberg’s time watching ’80s movies such as Rocky IV and WarGames with the Reagans, most frequently at Camp David. In addition to the movies, Weinberg also tells of some of the inner politics of the Reagan White House, including his firing by incoming chief of staff Don Regan, whom Weinberg had badmouthed to the press. Despite freely admitting what he had done, Weinberg was unrepentant, complaining, “I was loyal to the Reagans, knew that I had done nothing wrong, and that Donald Regan’s firing me was undeserved.” Incredibly, Weinberg appeals worked, and he got back his job — both as press aide and presidential movie buddy.
Speaking of the movies, Chris Nashawaty’s Caddyshack goes behind the scenes of the messy making of the golf-comedy classic. Nashawaty reveals great tidbits, including the backstory of Bill Murray’s and Chevy Chase’s mutual dislike — fortunately, they shared very little screen time in the movie — and how Rodney Dangerfield’s relentless and hysterical ad-libbing flustered Ted Knight’s professional acting sensibilities. As watchers of the movie well know, Knight’s frustration was evident on screen, and Dangerfield’s extemporaneous lines are among the funniest of the movie.
Another Hollywood-related book is Michael Ovitz’s memoir, Who Is Michael Ovitz?, which looks at the rise and rapid fall of one Hollywood’s most powerful men in the 1980s and ’90s. Anyone who followed Hollywood in that period knew who he was. Within Hollywood, players found that they were forced to choose whether they would be an Ovitz ally or an enemy. As Ovitz fell, never to return, from his empyrean heights, he discovered that even those he considered allies became gleeful foes.
In the category of how America and the West have countered threats to freedom, Hampton Sides’s On Desperate Ground is a riveting look at how U.S. Marines withstood a massive Chinese attack at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. The book will leave readers impressed and proud of the courage, sacrifice, and fighting skill of the heavily outnumbered Marines. The Devil Dogs lost 750 brave men while inflicting 30,000 losses on the Chinese. Readers will also be infuriated by the arrogance and shortsightedness of General Douglas MacArthur, who put the brave Marines in their vulnerable position. Another book that will engender both admiration and anger is a new Cold War spy thriller by Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor. KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky became British intelligence’s highest-ranking asset, but he was betrayed by CIA traitor Aldrich Ames, who sold out dozens of brave souls serving the Western cause. Once Gordievsky was compromised, the Brits felt an obligation to rescue him, putting together an elaborate and risky rescue operation that must be read to be believed.
On the Jewish-books front, I enjoyed Steven Weisman’s The Chosen Wars, about the development of the American Jewish community before the 20th century. Weisman recounts that Judah Monis, the first Jew in America to get a college degree, earned it from Harvard, starting a long association with Jews and what would become the Ivy League. Monis converted to Christianity shortly after graduating, starting another long, but more controversial, tradition among American Jews. Weisman also describes a fistfight that broke out in an Albany synagogue during Rosh Hashanah services, highlighting the infighting that is yet a third long-standing American Jewish tradition.
My brother Gil Troy edited The Zionist Ideas, an excellent anthology of great writing about Zionism. Gil not only put together a superb collection of pieces on the subject, but he also skillfully introduced each author with a short essay explaining the author’s historical relevance. Avi Jorisch’s Thou Shalt Innovate highlights a series of impressive Israeli innovations in a variety of fields that are truly changing the world. From superior field bandages to water-saving irrigation systems to ambu-cycles that can ferry first responders through gridlocked streets in time to save lives, Jorisch shows why anyone foolish enough to carry out the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) initiative to its logical conclusion will only be harming themselves.
Two advice books by smart guys with policy backgrounds are The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch, and When by Daniel Pink. Rauch explains the science and the psychology behind the fact that people in their thirties and forties often feel overwhelmed and depressed, while things start to go on the upswing once you hit your fifties. Pink’s book is about the importance of timing. He does not just assert that timing is everything but gives practical advice to individuals about how to time things, from work projects to career changes to major medical procedures. These two short reads are both helpful life guides.
Finally, I’m partial to both White House memoirs and baseball books. We are in a period heavy on recollections by Obama aides. Two that stood out to me were Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Obama deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, and From the Corner of the Oval by White House stenographer Beck Dorey-Stein. Mastromonaco reveals some intriguing staff tensions within the White House, despite the myth of the “No Drama Obama” White House, while Dorey-Stein’s chick lit–meets–White House memoir describes the hook-up and party culture prevalent on presidential trips.
Two baseball books that I found entertaining were Keith Hernandez’s I’m Keith Hernandez and Ben Reiter’s Astroball. Hernandez, like Dorey-Stein above, describes a traveling hook-up culture, this one taking place during the travels of major-league ballplayers. Hernandez is surprisingly and perhaps unnecessarily frank about some of the unpleasant consequences of engaging in that lifestyle. More than once, the book reminded me of P. J. O’Rourke’s observation that the Sexual Revolution is over, and the microbes won. Fortunately, the book spends more time on the science of hitting, including Pete Rose’s lesson to Hernandez on how to be a .300 hitter: Get 30 hits a month.
Reiter, author of the famous Sports Illustrated 2014 cover story correctly predicting that the 2017 Astros would be World Series champs, goes behind the scenes to show how the Astros made it happen. The Astros management was not perfect in this period — they blew two of three No. 1 draft picks and somehow let budding superstar J.D. Martinez get away — but their relentlessly data-driven approach enabled them to rise from league doormat to world champions. And so, Dear Reader, I hope that these choices help inform your reading selections for the year 2019 and beyond. Happy reading to all.