Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
Anyone who appreciates brilliant food and larger-than-life personalities will love journalist Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (Vintage), one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. Working on a New Yorker profile of Mario Batali, the middle-aged Buford gets the crazy idea of becoming a “kitchen slave” at the famous chef’s flagship restaurant, Babbo, and writing about the experience. Heat, the end result, brings us a wonderfully detailed and funny inside view of what makes a great kitchen succeed: ceaseless hard work, entrepreneurial drive, and creative genius. And better still, it provides vivid portraits not only of Batali — whose Falstaffian capacity for drink and food is exceeded only by his superhuman energy — but also of the chef’s extraordinary lieutenants and early mentors and inspirations.
I’m a basketball junkie — a lifelong Boston Celtics fan — and had long awaited a book like Bill Simmons’s mammoth The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (ESPN). Best known as ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” Simmons often writes in a free-associational frenzy, but his 700-page book abounds with insights about the game and fascinating player rankings (learn, definitively, why Celtics center Bill Russell was a much better player than his rival Wilt Chamberlain); useful counterfactuals (imagine if the Portland Trailblazers had selected Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft instead of passing him over for injury-plagued center Sam Bowie); and laugh-out-loud humor (the author was a writer for comedian and talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel). Few could read this book front to back, but frequent dives will make you a (much) more informed hoops fan. Malcolm Gladwell provides an amusing introduction on Simmons as a basketball fan — or more accurately, fanatic.
In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton University Press), the novelist and philosopher Pascal Bruckner anatomizes the self-hatred that afflicts Western intellectuals when confronting enemies — like Islamic fanatics — who seek to eradicate democratic society and its freedoms. The West’s greatness is linked inextricably to its self-critical capacity, as Bruckner recognizes, but a kind of pathological “hypercriticism” has become increasingly prevalent that assumes we’re always wrong, always to blame, always the bad guy. Bruckner’s brilliant short book calls for the restoration of a prudent but vigorous Western self-respect; the alternative is civilizational suicide.
Brian Anderson is the editor of City Journal.
Normal people usually want to read entertaining books for pleasure. Policy nerds in Washington, like me, are more likely to favor dull but informative tomes. Of course, the sad fact is that many of us Washingtonians tend to find dull to be the real interesting.
Not dull is Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books). Bacevich is one of the most trenchant critics of the many conservatives who have adopted Woodrow Wilson as their patron saint. Washington Rules builds on his earlier work to critique America’s seeming policy of permanent war.
Bacevich is a Catholic and former Army colonel who lost a son in Iraq. It’s hard to find a more serious or traditional conservative. But he persuasively warns against the corrosive impact of an overly militarized policy on the American republic.
It’s an argument that any believer in a government of limited powers committed to protecting individual liberty must take seriously. Especially during the Obama era. These days it is easy to denounce the depredations of the left. But conservatives also must rethink what they stand for.
In the same genre is Michael Mandelbaum’s The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (PublicAffairs). Mandelbaum makes no pretense of being a conservative, but he discusses the practical difficulty of Washington playing globocop when it is broke.
Conservatives rightly target burgeoning social programs in the deficit debate. But there’s no reason to exempt “defense” when so much military spending goes to defend other countries — the populous and prosperous Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans, in particular. Mandelbaum gets a lot wrong, but his basic point is irrefutable. Uncle Sam is a bankrupt wastrel who no longer can afford to subsidize foreign welfare queens.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t serious international challenges facing America. Stefan Halper takes on the People’s Republic of China in The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books).
Halper’s conclusion actually isn’t as certain as his title. The PRC need not win the global great game. But he raises an important alarm about the challenge that Beijing may eventually pose to America. China remains far behind the U.S. militarily and will be poor, even with a large economy, for years to come. However, America’s policy toward the PRC tends to be fragmented and short-sighted. Washington needs to do better if China lives up to its geopolitical potential.
America’s biggest current international challenge is Afghanistan. Packed with information about that distant Central Asian land is Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press). The book challenges some hoary myths. For instance, Afghanistan wasn’t much of a “graveyard of empires” until the 1800s. Before that the territory was more a battleground for empires. Reigning empires were dispatched to the geopolitical cemetery by other empires, not the locals. Whatever one thinks of the Bush/Obama effort at nation-building — I believe it’s foolish — it’s impossible not to sympathize with people who have suffered through war for most of the last four decades.
One of the best releases of the year is Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Thomas Nelson). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Christian who helped form the “confessing church,” which resisted the Nazis in Germany. But Bonhoeffer went further, joining the political resistance. He was murdered shortly before the war ended.
Metaxas tells a great story extraordinarily well. Bonhoeffer is a particularly appropriate book for Christmas. For all the talk of “persecution” of Christians in America, most believers live privileged lives in a society that remains one of the freest on earth. Bonhoeffer faced persecution by one of the most monstrous regimes in human history, but responded courageously, in contrast to so many others who professed the same faith.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?