Magazine | May 14, 2018, Issue

What We’re Reading

(Eliseo Mallia/Getty Images)

We asked some friends for recommendations of books that have been published in recent months, and other books they’ve read and enjoyed recently. Here’s our spring reading list.

ORSON SCOTT CARD

Hell Divers, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith. Two centuries after a nuclear war that made Earth uninhabitable, the human species survives only in two huge airships, which keep their passengers alive by sending “Hell Divers” down to the poisonous surface in order to retrieve power cells and spare parts that survived the war. The trouble is that there are creatures that adapted to survive on the surface, and all of them are happy to tear apart and devour any humans who come their way.

Nicholas Sansbury Smith has created a compelling story about people we can care about, solving mysteries with intriguing answers, amid violent action that keeps making you look around for Tom Cruise or Dwayne Johnson. From the first page, I couldn’t stop reading; better news is that the sequel, Hell Divers II: Ghosts, is just as good; best is that a third volume (Blackstone, $24.99) is coming in May.

R. C. Bray’s narration on the Blackstone audiobooks is the kind of low-key performance that suits intense action perfectly.

Mr. Card is the author of Ender’s Game. His most recent book is Children of the Fleet.

 

MONA CHAREN

I’ve finally gotten around to reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, written as he suffered the cancer that would take his life. It’s striking how much his personality — wry, perceptive, frank — comes through despite the passage of years. Grant was careful to praise others. It’s a sign of how much our culture has changed that I found his focus on such qualities as rectitude and honesty notable. Like Lincoln, he was charitable toward the defeated enemy, but also utterly clear-eyed. Upon accepting Lee’s surrender, he wrote: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 576 pp., $35) is not quite up to the standard of The Blank Slate, Pinker’s masterly debunking of the conceit that all human traits are socially constructed. But his new book’s patient recounting of human progress over the past 200 or so years is powerful. On hundreds of measures of well-being, we humans are not just better off than we used to be but spectacularly better off. Pinker’s assemblage of data about poverty, life expectancy, war, crime, literacy, safety, and ease is enough to make you bow down in gratitude for the blessings of our time.

Leon Kass’s collection Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 408 pp., $27.99) is a wise reflection on the permanent things.

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

 

MARK HELPRIN

I have a giant — really giant, 50-by-16-foot — bookshelf, and I’ll be damned if I can remember the books of the last few months that disappear into it. And I’m relatively sure that what I’m reading now, and have been for quite a while, has been covered many times in this section. As a septuagenarian, I find that I can deal with the unsettling froth and idiocy overtaking our civilization, and stabilize what is left of my mind, by returning to the classics. So I’ve gone back to the 18th century and am at present immersed in The Federalist and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. The superiority and tranquility of thought coupled with the magnificence of language therein are a gift that as an undergraduate and graduate student I could not fully appreciate owing to a not fully developed brain (see today’s Millennials) and the splendid, nearly all-encompassing activity of finding a woman with whom to spend the rest of my life. So as not to devote all reading to the encoffined, I just received Joseph Tartakovsky’s The Lives of the Constitution (Encounter, 320 pp., $25.99), which looks both lively and great.

Mr. Helprin is the author of Winter’s Tale and other books.

 

HEATHER HIGGINS

One of the greatest challenges facing all of us, across the political spectrum, is how to better connect with people in our increasingly divided, and divisive, culture. Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 208 pp., $28) is itself a brave book, offering important insights into how the increased sorting into political groups has, ironically, left many people feeling more isolated and alone. Brown provides a fascinating exploration of how and why differing ideological groups work to objectify and marginalize. Offering simple, practical advice on how to show and grow our authentic selves while at the same time recognizing others as equally unique and vulnerable, the book helps us find a path forward. Both intriguing and informative, it’s an important book for any conservative who wants to be a better advocate for our ideals and for a more civil, respectful society.

Heather Higgins is the CEO of Independent Women’s Voice.

 

JOHN J. MILLER

I missed Silence, the recent movie directed by Martin Scorsese, but the debates about it inspired me a few weeks ago to read its source, the haunting novel by Shusaku Endo — and the book has bothered my imagination as few others have. Published in 1966 and set in the 1600s, the story describes a pair of Portuguese Jesuits on a secret mission to Japan, where they hope to minister to Christians who practice an outlaw faith. “There is no one more wretchedly alone than a priest who does not measure up to his task,” writes Endo, a Tokyo-born convert to Catholicism, who raises big questions about the presence of God, the nature of mercy, and the ability of the Church to adapt to non-Western cultures. A disturbing climax recalls a famous line from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Mr. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His latest book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

 

DAVID PRYCE-JONES

Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Bloomsbury Continuum, 352 pp., $26) is a masterwork of reportage on the phenomenon of mass immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Taken by surprise, Europeans have no policies in place either to prevent force of circumstance from imposing unwanted demographic and cultural change, or somehow to benefit from it. Trouble ahead, then.

Books about Soviet Communism tend to be written by specialists for specialists, so Anne Applebaum is greatly to be welcomed for tackling the subject with the general reader in mind. Her Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday, 496 pp., $35) carefully tells the story of one of Stalin’s more odious crimes. He and his henchmen deliberately starved to death about 4 million Ukrainians, and the memory of it is still vivid. 

Theodore Dalrymple is always original, and his short stories are evidence of it. The Proper Procedure and Other Stories (New English Review, 162 pp., $18.99) is a wonderful collection whose effect — can you believe it? — is to make you grind your teeth about the follies and fancies of life today.

Mr. Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review.

 

SARAH RUDEN

Translations and other popularizations of classical literature make up a very small part of the world of publishing, so I have disclosures to make while making recommendations this spring.  I was an early contributor to The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works (Pantheon, 896 pp., $50), which has now been brought together masterfully by the senior historian Kurt Raaflaub. He and the Landmark series editor, Robert Strassler, have tackled the most important ancient historian, and at the same time the most complex one. How did we ever do without this book?

Read Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey (Norton, 592 pp., $39.95) — not because this is a first for a woman, but because of the frankness and purity of her language. Maybe it did take a woman to call so many meanings as she saw them in this tale of freewheeling male adventure. (Emily and I were both contributors to The Greek Plays — Modern Library, 2016.)

Sarah Ruden is the author, most recently, of The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a translator of Augustine’s Confessions.

 

BEN SHAPIRO

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor (Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), by University of California, San Diego, professor Brian Keating, is both a fantastic exploration of the cosmos in a reader-friendly manner and an excellent critique of the most respected scientific prize on the planet.

Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West reminds us what it is that America represents, and how far we’ve strayed from our central principles as we’ve forgotten the legacy of the Lockean Enlightenment.

Brad Meltzer’s newest novel, The Escape Artist (Grand Central, 434 pp., $28), is a purely fun and riveting read, and Jake Tapper’s first novel, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27) is thrilling and detailed.

If you’re a musical-theater geek, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (Holt, 400 pp., $32), by Todd Purdum, presents a rich retelling of the relationship between those two consummate American musical-theater creators.

And I’m currently bulling my way through Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism (Princeton, 656 pp., $39.95), which is an excellent historical reference manual on the development of the world’s first great monotheistic faith.

Mr. Shapiro is the editor in chief of the Daily Wire.

 

FRED SIEGEL

As soon as I got on a plane taking me from New York to L.A. recently, I dug into my vintage 1967 paperback edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his celebrated account of how Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters traveled from San Francisco to New York in a Day-Glo bus and ladled out LSD. This first book-length example of what came to be known as gonzo journalism is a picaresque pleasure for the plane. When I arrived in ultra-hip Topanga Canyon, I turned to Touching, by Gwen Davis, who has been described as a West Coast version of Dawn Powell. It’s a fast-paced account of an early-’60s Esalen-like encounter group. Reading it, I felt as if I’d been let in on a conversation among terribly sophisticated women.

I then stumbled across a copy of The History Man (1976), by the British novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury. An account of a new college created to convey the new “knowledge” revealed by the ’60s, it gently conveys the hucksterism that accompanied that era.

Finally, I recommend Sam Rosenfeld’s recent The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (Chicago, 336 pp., $30), a straightforward account of the academic political science that took hold after World War II and has gone very wrong in the 2lst century. 

Mr. Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

 

STEPHEN TOOTLE

A handful of books grabbed my attention in the past few months. 

John Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life (Doubleday, 752 pp., $35) tells the story of how a flawed president diminished his office, discredited conservatives, almost destroyed the Republican party, and forced Republicans to rely on old morals and principles to begin rebuilding in his wake.

Despite Ron Chernow’s obsession with Grant’s drinking, his recent biography, Grant (Penguin, 1,104 pp., $40), makes a strong case that Grant deserves to take his place among the first rank of conservative Republican presidents.

David Nichols follows up his wonderful book on Eisenhower’s civil-rights record with Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $27.95), which describes how a president could deal with political enemies effectively while maintaining the dignity of his office. 

Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won (Basic, 720 pp., $40) is bracingly good, readable, mature, and original. 

Like all good works of history, these books demonstrate the folly and cost of forgetting the universal truths of human experience.

Mr. Tootle is a professor of history at College of the Sequoias.

 

KELLY JANE TORRANCE

I had no idea George Kennan’s daughter had written a memoir until I overheard her talking about it as I lunched recently on a trip to New York. (It turns out Grace Kennan Warnecke and her father, one of the most important thinkers of the Cold War, often ate at the place, Manhattan’s Russian Samovar.) I’m now reading her just-released book, Daughter of the Cold War (Pittsburgh, 304 pp., $24.95), and it’s filled with the personal and the political: a photograph she took of Joan Baez when the singer visited Moscow, and recollections of her education at a Soviet school where students would “receive the latest pronouncement from Comrade Stalin.” She had an extraordinary start, and she’s made the most of it.

I’m also absorbed by The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (Oxford, 416 pp., $34.95), by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Economists are often accused of seeing human beings as purely rational actors motivated by simple self-interest. George Mason University professor Hanson has long debunked conventional notions, and here he makes his best argument yet that we’re not even aware of much of what motivates us.

Like Jane Austen, I hold that the best way to begin to fathom human nature is by reading novels. Julian Barnes has just published another of his masterworks, The Only Story (Knopf, 272 pp., $25.95). Like most of his recent books, it’s a moving meditation on love, memory, death, and everything else important.

If you need something lighter — and I certainly did — there’s Michael Korda’s Catnip: A Love Story (Countryman, 192 pp., $14.95). Okay, so it involves a series of sketches he made for his wife to distract her as cancer took her life. But one can’t help but smile at the cavalcade of charming kitties the former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster has drawn, along with his discussion of such feline fans as Winston Churchill, who consulted his companion, Nelson, as the Battle of Britain raged, despite “the irritation of admirals, generals and air marshals.”

Kelly Jane Torrance is the deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Books

Redeeming the Miracle

Yuval Levin reviews Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg.

Sections

Letters

Letters

Richard Rustad responds to Yuval Levin & Ramesh Ponnuru’s article “A New Health-Care Debate.”

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