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Books for Christmas

Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.

From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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(These recommendations appear in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)

JONATHAN AITKEN

My Christmas reading choices fall into three categories: power, money, and contemplative spirituality.

The best book on power that I have read for a long time is Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (Allen Lane) by the British historian Andrew Roberts. The Masters are Churchill and Roosevelt. The Commanders are Eisenhower, MacArthur, Montgomery, George Marshall, and Alan Brooke. All come alive in Roberts’s elegant prose as fascinating human beings on top of their military and political roles as giants of history. The interaction between them was packed with disagreements, yet unlike their opposite numbers they harnessed their strong wills to a common cause in collective teamwork. By contrast, concludes Roberts, “the lack of a collegiate Chiefs of Staff system was one of the major reasons why Germany lost the Second World War.” A riveting and beautifully written overview of how and why the Allies won it.

Collegiality was not one of Richard Nixon's virtues, but his complexity is well explained and favorably (perhaps too favorably!) interpreted by Conrad Black in his magisterial biography Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs). The strength of this book is Black’s perceptive understanding of the good and bad sides of Nixon’s inner character together with a strong historical grasp of the outer political pressures with which he had to wrestle.

Turning to money, two new books I have enjoyed this year are The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea by Steve LeVine (Random House) and The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder (Bantam).

LeVine’s merry romp through the new oil Klondike of the 21st century is a page turner chronicling the exotic activities of oligarchs, oil majors, explorers, crooks, wheeler dealers, pipeline builders, and Caspian politicians. We will hear more about this colorful cast if Russia continues to flex its muscles on energy supplies in the region.

The Sage of Omaha has become almost everyone’s favorite guru in the new era of financial adversity. Buffett comes across in this poorly written official biography as a genuine man of principle who throughout his life has been critical of corporate greed, frugal in his lifestyle, generous in his philanthropy, and steadfast in his support for civil and human rights. But his public ethics are not matched by his “almost pathological lack of empathy” which drove his devoted wife away while he lived with a younger woman in Omaha.

It will be a relief at Christmas-time to turn away from war, politics, and greed to practice a little contemplative spirituality. Two gifted 20th-century guides to this search for peace and faith are Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill. This is the 50th anniversary of Merton’s untimely death and the 70th anniversary of the first publication of his classic The Seven Storey Mountain (Harvest), one of the greatest monastic autobiographies of all time. It was memorably described by Bishop Fulton Sheen as “a 20th-century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine.”

Evelyn Underhill’s The Ways of the Spirit (Crossroad) is another classic for contemplatives. It consists of her hitherto unpublished retreats which focus on such issues as God’s call, Inner Grace, and the Perfection of Love. Both Merton and Underhill drew much inspiration from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis which in its many editions remains the world’s best-selling Christian book of all time after the Bible. I shall try to reread all three masterpieces this Advent.  

Jonathan Aitken is The American Spectator’s High Spirits columnist, is most recently author of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (CrosswayBooks). His biographies include Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (Doubleday) and Nixon: A Life, now available in a new paperback edition (Regnery).

MICHAEL BARONE

In these frenzied economic times, I can think of no better reading than two books which chronicle in lively fashion two long episodes in American history. One is Robert Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence (Random House), which explains how the abstract economic theories of Keynesian economists produced not the promised eternal economic growth but the longest sustained peacetime inflation in American history, rising to 14 percent in the times of Jimmy Carter. The other is David Smick’s The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy (Portfolio), which explains how the abstract mathematical models of financial wizards produced not the promised eternal self-sustaining economic growth but rather a non-transparent financial system which led to the coagulation of credit and, it seems at the time of this writing, a financial crash. Both show how abstract theories proved faulty in practice; both recommend similar common sense responses: intelligently regulated transparent markets.

For historically minded readers of this journal distraught with the seeming trends in our politics and government, I recommend two reminders that things could turn out worse. Two eminent historians have produced major treatments of antebellum America. One is Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton). Like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Wilentz tends to be a partisan of Andrew Jackson and to see Jackson and the early Democratic Party as the tribunes of the common man. But he is far from immune to the attractions of Abraham Lincoln. The other is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press). Howe is an avowed admirer of Henry Clay and the Whigs, and Lincoln, always an admirer of Clay, is viewed in the prism of his opposition to the Jacksonian James K. Polk’s Mexican War. Wilentz sees the rise of popular politics as the chief trend of his longer era; Howe sees the rise of new forms of transportation and communication--the railroad, the telegraph--as the chief trend of his three decades. Both books are uncommonly well written and full of interesting stories that I had not come across before.

Finally, I recommend Andrew Roberts’s Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (Allen Lane). You’ll have to go to Amazon's United Kingdom site to buy it now -- it won’t be released in the United States till early next year -- but it’s well worth the minimal extra shipping expense. Roberts is the preeminent British historian of this generation, and in this book he draws on hitherto untapped sources to discover what Churchill and Roosevelt, Marshall and Brooke, were up to in World War II. They were giants in the land then, making momentous decisions that affected the lives of millions and shaped the future for many years to come. But as Roberts tells the story, the decisions did not come easily, the tensions between these four great men were enormous, events did not turn out quite as anyone planned, great blunders were committed, and great victories were obtained. Churchill was grandiose and given to absurd initiatives, Roosevelt was devious and played double games with everyone, Marshall was straightforward and a great judge of character but unimaginative, Brooke was scintillating but unduly dismissive of those who disagreed. Yet together they moved, unsurely at times, with great setbacks (aficionados of Bob Woodward books might like to think about this), going around each other on occasions, attentive always to the necessity of propitiating the great tyrant and indispensable ally Stalin--with all this they moved to a grand victory over the forces of evil. There is no greater story in 20th-century history, and no one has told it better than Andrew Roberts. The world could have descended into George Orwell’s 1984. This is the story of the four men who made sure that that did not happen.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His most recent book is Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Uprising That Inspired America's Founding Fathers (Crown).

CONRAD BLACK

Being a nonfiction writer, my choices always tend to history and biography. With that leaning, I nominate Andrew Roberts’s Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (Allen Lane), a just published account of relations and strategic debates between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their chief military advisers, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and General George C. Marshall. It utilizes newly opened archives and is a gripping read.

For those who like ante-bellum U.S. history, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press) and Sean Wilentz's, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton) are very comprehensive and well-written, and an intriguing contrast between Wilentz's unwavering admiration for the Democrats and distaste for the Whigs and grudging toleration of the Federalists and Republicans; and Howe's entirely nonpartisan view of largely the same events. Both perspectives are very well presented.

Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954-1965 (Cambridge University Press) documents the revisionist reinterpretation of the Vietnam War, of what justification there was for it, and how it might have been managed satisfactorily. Only rigorous scholarship would be useful in this field, and Moyar provides it.

For a slight departure, Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (Ivan R. Dee) is much more than its title implies and reminds us of what a formidable intellect and polymath, and often delightful writer, Irving Kristol has been for more than fifty years.

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (PublicAffairs) and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs).

JOE THE PLUMBER

My Christmas Book recommendations are as follows, though in no particular order of priority:

Temples of Convenience--and Chambers of Delight (Tempus Publishing) by Lucinda Lambton. This book came out in the 1990s when I was just getting interested. It shed a great deal of light on the development of the lavatory or, as we say over home, “the hutch.” This book contains pictures of over 150 “hutches,” some pretty fancy ones, though none from Ohio and most the product of non-union labor. The descriptions are good too.

The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises. The book is a 1912 study of monetary theory. It brought monetary theory into the mainstream of economic analysis. It is important reading for these troubled times.

Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper by Wallace Reyburn. And just when you think you know everything about plumbing, this book comes along.

Plumber’s Handbook (paperback, but it is pretty water-resistant) by Howard C. Massey. Readers might find this book a little too technical, but I have learned a lot, particularly on the topics of greasy waste systems, outside waste interceptors, and what for me has been a longtime conundrum, local gas codes.

Joe the Plumber was born in Ironton, Ohio.

HERBERT LONDON

For those who would like to remember the elegance that once accompanied popular culture instead of the degradation that one finds now, Joseph Epstein's Fred Astaire (Yale University) is a marvelous reminder.

As a patriot who cares deeply about this country and is continually assaulted by claims of America's imperfections (surely there are some), I believe it is time for Americans to see each other anew and recognize how privileged we are to live in this nation. As a consequence, I read with great appreciation Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now (HarperCollins) by Peggy Noonan, a short but poignant take on the need for leaders who can summon greatness.

And last, I recommend Crush the Cell (Crown) by Michael Sheehan, the former counterterrorism czar in New York City. Mr. Sheehan points out with extraordinary clarity the need for operational intelligence as the anti-toxin for the disease of violent Islamic radicalism.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the new book America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion (Encounter Books).

CLIFFORD D. MAY

At the top of my list is Troublesome Young Men (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) by Lynne Olson. It’s about Winston Churchill and other British politicians in the 1930s who grasped the Nazi threat and did everything they could to sound the alarm to a public that did not want to hear and did not want to know.

Robert Ferrigno’s Prayers for the Assassin (Pocket Star) is a funny and frightening novel about an imagined future in the Islamic Republic of America. There are still some pockets of resistance: “Those peckerwoods in the Bible Belt are black-hearted infidels and eaters of swine, but you have to admit, they know how to make soda pop.”

Frederick W. Kagan’s Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (Encounter) is essential reading on the challenges facing the American military.

His brother, Robert Kagan, has a new book this year: The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf). He argues that “autocracy is making a comeback,” with Russia and China the most significant examples. His message: “History has returned and the democracies must come together to shape it or others will shape it for them.”

The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (Norton) by Robert Conquest, summarizes what he has learned over the course of a life devoted to studying the lessons of the past.

Mary M. Leder was a teenager when, in 1931, her parents moved to the Soviet Union to pursue what might be called the Socialist Dream. Her parents were disillusioned within a very short time, but Mary met a guy, got married--and then could not leave for the next 34 years. I met her in the 1970s, then lost touch with her. Only recently did I learn that she had, in 2001, finally written and published her memoirs: My Life in Stalinist Russia: An American Woman Looks Back (Indiana University Press). It's every bit as fascinating as her stories were.  

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.

ALFRED S. REGNERY

Many conservatives will be surprised to learn that the father of everything they hate -- statism, high taxes, economic intervention by the feds, corporate welfare, the decline of federalism, and broad interpretation of the Constitution by the courts -- is none other than founder, aide to George Washington, and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton. It is well told in Thomas DiLorenzo's Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution -- and What It Means for America Today (Crown Forum) -- an eye-opener, an easy read, and a source of understanding about much that has gone wrong in America over the past century.

For those who think wars end when the truce has been signed, let me recommend Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II by David Stafford (Little, Brown). Through the eyes of a diverse group of observers, this vivid historical account tells what went on in Europe for the three months following Germany’s surrender in April 1945, chronicling the overwhelming destruction, death, and sheer hopelessness that enveloped Europe, tempered only by the Allies’ attempts to bring peace, order, and democratic rule to the ruins of war. And what a lesson for those who naively think that pulling out of Iraq may be the end of that conflict.

And call it crass self-promotion if you wish (allowed of me in these pages as publisher of this magazine), anybody concerned about the future of the conservative cause must read Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism, written by your faithful servant (Threshold/Simon & Schuster). The conservative movement didn’t just happen, but was built by countless selfless men and women who adhered to a set of principles that slowly took hold in the culture and the body politic and became, over a period of more than 60 years, one of the dominant political and philosophical forces in the country. Upstream tells that story.  

Alfred S. Regnery is publisher of The American Spectator.

IRA STOLL

Is it an ethical violation to recommend my own book? How about if I disclose that I am the author of Samuel Adams: A Life (Free Press). One highly negative early review called it a “Neocon view of the least-known Founding Father” and wrote that by the time the book ends, “it’s evident--to the author, at least--that Samuel Adams (1722-1803) would gleefully have supported firearms in every living room, prayer in the public schools, and the invasion of Iraq."

Ira Stoll is the former managing editor of the New York Sun.

R. EMMETT TYRRELL, JR.

In the 20th century, Winston Churchill was so widely noted for his wit and turn of phrase that if a clever line were in the air it was often attributed to him whether he said it or not. Doubtless the great man rarely complained, though occasionally he did, as readers will note in this definitive compilation of his solemnities, witticisms, and other famous lines. For instance, though he never characterized the British naval tradition as embracing “Rum, buggery, and the lash,” he told his secretary that he wished he had. And he never joked that if married to Nancy Astor and given the opportunity to drink her poisoned coffee he would willingly drink it.

In Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (PublicAffairs) editor Richard Langworth has, with utmost scholarliness, gathered 627 pages of Churchill’s most memorable lines from his 15 million published words. Langworth’s scholarship is fascinating. In the case of some of Churchill’s most famous lines, Langworth traces their origins in earlier oratory (Cicero) or poetry (John Donne). He files the lines under interesting headings, for instance: “Maxims,” “Nuclear Age and Cold War,” and “Ripostes.” Yet his most memorable chapter, at least for me, is titled “Red Herrings: False Attributions.” There on page 572 the indefatigable editor casts doubt on The American Spectator’s authority for claiming without attribution that Churchill once said, “Smoking cigars is like falling in love; first you are attracted to the shape; you stay for its flavor; and you must always remember, never, never let the flame go out.” Okay, at ease my fellow Spectatorians! I ferreted out the source and have sent it on to Langworth. Our honor is preserved. On October 15, 1963, at a Conservative Party Conference at Blackpool, Randolph, while smoking a cigar, related his father’s line to my source, who must remain anonymous, for he explained: “Admittedly, he [Randolph] was drunk at the time.”

After expatiating at somewhat greater length than I had intended about this magisterial work of scholarship that should be in the library of every Churchill aficionado, let me suggest also Al Regnery’s elegant and authoritative history of our own conservative movement, Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (Threshold/Simon & Schuster). Given the botches of so many conservative pols over the last fifteen years, we who believe that conservative values and principles won most of the political battles since 1980 are going to be spending the next several years in the wilderness, assessing the relevance of those values and principles and looking for pols who are up to the challenges of preserving liberty. Regnery’s history of conservatism’s growth will be indispensable to us, as will the L.L. Bean catalog. One can survive quite comfortably in the wilderness nowadays, as the Bean catalog makes clear.

For a timely book that demonstrates how a great political figure, Abraham Lincoln, developed ideas for his time that spread the American promise of freedom, I recommend Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole), by a Lincoln scholar who has also been a successful businessman and movement conservative, Lewis Lehrman. Lincoln’s ideas revolved around personal liberty and the institution of slavery in the 1850s. Lehrman’s elucidation of Lincoln’s intellectual tussle with the bad ideas of his era and the challenge of freeing the slaves and saving the Union is at once dramatic and informative about politics and America itself. The book is also well timed, as 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth.

Finally, let me suggest Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Knopf). Pepys is probably the greatest diarist in the English language. He wrote his diary entries in the middle of 17th century London when great events were taking place that in time would shape the founding of our own country. He gives us a feel for his time from the powerful office he held in government that served as his crow’s nest over emerging British society. Tomalin tells us the whole story and this enthralling subject, part bureaucrat, part Puritan, part rogue.

Merry Christmas to all, especially to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. His most recent book is The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House (Thomas Nelson).

WALTER E. WILLIAMS

Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell (Basic Books).
The Law, by Frederic Bastiat (Foundation for Economic Education).
Locke, Jefferson and the Justices: Foundations and Failures of the U.S. Government, by George M. Stephens (Algora Publishing).  

Prof. Walter E. Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University. His most recent book is More Liberty Means Less Government: Our Founders Knew This Well (Hoover).

(These recommendations appear in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)

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