Books for Christmas

Xmas Recommendations: Vol. 1

From André Aciman to Ben Domenech.

By 12.17.13

Shafali Anand
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André Aciman

Recommendations take time, and the books I read are mostly written by dead people! Not inspirational by any stretch. If I recommend one book it is The Peloponnesian War. Of no consequence whatsoever to people who love books by Jonathans.

André Aciman is a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. His novel Harvard Square was recently published by W.W. Norton.


Mark Amory

I am mildly embarrassed to find that my preferred books this year are parochial choices. The obvious one is Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning (Allen Lane) by Charles Moore, once my editor here at the Spectator. Hailed by all as excellent and by many as one of the great political biographies, it has only one drawback: After 859 pages, she is prime minister but only 57. Much lies ahead.

At least Mrs. Thatcher is well known. Damian McBride was known by few and then chiefly as a monster who lied and plotted to smear not only political opponents but his own Labour party. In Power Trip (Biteback) he confesses a stupefying amount, if not all. He is indeed a monster but one with a sharp turn of phrase. I was shocked. More sophisticated colleagues shook their heads and murmured, “We knew most of all that already.” 

Retaining something of that atmosphere, Stage Blood (Faber) by Michael Blakemore describes life at the Royal National Theatre, which is 50 this year. He gives in fascinating detail an account of directing Laurence Olivier in one of his greatest roles in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Then he moves on to Peter Hall, who succeeded Oliver, and lets loose a torrent of resentment that has been stored up for years, all the more lethal in that it comes from a decent chap trying to be fair. If Hall is said to be conniving and greedy, it must be remembered that he had a lot of wives to support.…

You might enormously improve the life of a friend who has never come across the novels of Ivy Compton Burnett by giving them one (any except Dolores, her only stinker). Set among the upper classes of England around the beginning of the 20th century, they deal with family life almost entirely in dialogue. You notice the wit immediately and the ruthlessness soon becomes apparent, but deep emotions are at the heart: not remotely realistic but true. Like Henry Green, she is constantly rediscovered by writers but never quite catches on and so perhaps remains hard to find.

Mark Amory is literary editor of the Spectator in London.


Jed Babbin

Wasn’t it Churchill who admonished us to read an old book before we pick up a new one? Old and relatively obscure is War in the Desert by Lt. Gen. Sir John Bagot Glubb (Hoddon and Stoughton Press, 1960). It’s compulsory reading for those who want to learn why the Middle East is what it is.

Before it was Saudi Arabia, it was called “the Nejed.” And second to T.E. Lawrence, Glubb was probably the most dedicated “Arabist” the British ever sent to the Middle East. As a junior RAF officer in 1920, Glubb was assigned to help protect nomadic Iraqi tribes from the “Ikhwan”—a precursor of the Muslim Brotherhood—that attacked them from the Nejed. If you want to understand the Saudis, you must read Glubb’s history of that 10-year war. 

Not for Turning, Robin Harris’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, is not only a detailed political history of the great conservative British leader, it is also a frank assessment of the effects of her policies. Harris’s book also gives us a better glimpse into why and how Thatcher worked so well with Ronald Reagan than I have seen in previous biographies of either. 

Lt. Gen. Ion Pacepa was the head of the Romanian intelligence service and became the highest ranking defector from the Soviet bloc. His book Disinformation, written with Prof. Ronald Rychlak, is indispensable to those who wish to understand how the Soviets tried—and often succeeded—to remake history by relentlessly writing, speaking, and broadcasting lies. By recounting several disinformation campaigns, Pacepa and Rychlak teach an invaluable lesson about one of the most insidious tools of politics and war.

Last and certainly not least, American Betrayal by Diana West documents Soviet penetration of the U.S. government during World War II and the parallels today to how the “free world” is reacting to Islam. Do not be dissuaded by the controversy that has erupted around this book which, if you insist on complete accuracy, would be characterized as a disinformation campaign. 

These books aren’t light reading to take to the beach next summer. They’re for cold reflection and thought on quiet winter nights when your mind is clear and eager to learn. Enjoy.

Jed Babbin is a contributing editor of the The American Spectator.


Harold Bloom

Shakespeare always first. I recommend the Arden editions. The other glories of our language are the King James Bible and Chaucer. A personal favorite among neglected books is the wonderful fantasy by John Crowley called Little, Big. As far as royalties are concerned let me add my esoteric study called The American Religion. As a lifelong Liberal Democrat I have mixed feelings about your magazine, but let that be.

Harold Bloom is a Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. He is the author of more than 30 books, including, most recently, The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible and The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, both of which are available in paperback from Yale University Press.


Tim Carney

Obamanomics and the Big Ripoff, by Timothy P. Carney. Learn about the ungodly collusion of Big Business and Big Government while helping put four young Carney kids through Catholic school.

The Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman: “War is all destruction.” So Gen. Sherman ended a war, the only way he could.

Timothy P. Carney is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


Daniel Dennett 

Here are two books about biology that read like novels, and two novels that have haunted my imagination for decades:

The novels are Moby-Dick, in the famous Modern Library edition with the Rockwell Kent illustrations, each of them branded on my memory since I first encountered them as a 12-year-old reader; and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a hilarious, bawdy romp through the late 17th century, the tale of Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin (as he styles himself), who makes his way to the colonies to take up a position as a tobacco (sot-weed) expediter. Barth mixes history (and historical gossip) with fiction, the whole written in the English of Henry Fielding and John Locke, a dazzling and subversive retelling of early American history.

The nonfiction titles are Wetware, Dennis Bray’s elegant little book about the talents of microbes and how the protein networks cycling inside them serve as their nervous systems, and The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins’ elegant large book: a journey backwards in time from us human beings through our primate ancestors all the way back through the fish to the bacteria, gathering a wealth of astonishing details about life forms and lucid explanations of the theoretical ideas that discipline the journey.

Daniel Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and the author of Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (W.W. Norton).


Ben Domenech 

For much of the past year, I and a handful of other writers have been debating the concept of libertarian populism, a growing political movement that I believe represents a potentially dramatic new fusionism that moves beyond the Cold War and War on Terror formations of the right’s coalition. In the course of writing on this topic, I have turned to several books, old and new, for ideas and concepts that inform the understanding we have of where the coalition of the right was in the past, and where it is headed today.

Whether you are interested in the concept of libertarian populism or not, I strongly recommend a return to the following books as you consider the direction the right ought to take in the years ahead. Here are three that you have likely already read: Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law; Charles Murray’s In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government; and Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, of which there is now an updated edition. And here are three you may have missed: Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, the most entertaining book about demography and destiny you will ever read, and one that speaks to America’s ongoing redefinition of the life well lived; Don Devine’s America’s Way Back, an alternate proposal for the nature of fusionism in the post-Tea Party era; and Tim Carney’s Obamanomics, which outlines an America where the biggest collection of welfare queens isn’t located in impoverished inner cities, but headquartered on Wall Street and K Street, getting billion-dollar welfare checks from the government while the rest of us get stuck with the bill.

Here are an additional three books I enjoyed immensely this year:

First, David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, which is full of fascinating and colorful anecdotes about an election at the turning point of American history. Pietrusza is a brilliant historian with a great instinct for the odd characters underappreciated by others, and his affection for Calvin Coolidge is endearing.

Second, Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance, which recounts the unique history of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, the two immigrants who transformed the fledgling United States from a potential banana republic into the most successful free market the world had ever seen. If you are like me, you will come away shocked at Thomas Jefferson’s anti-market tendencies.

And third, A.E. Stallings’ Olives, one of the most lovely collections of poetry in the new formalist style. Stallings’ voice is incredible for its depth and range, but my favorite entry in her most recent collection is “Fairy Tale Logic,” a poem about the “impossible tasks” which block the path of every hero and heroine in myth and legend—fanciful at first, but grim and clear-eyed in its denouement: “The will to do whatever must be done: / Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.”

Ben Domenech is publisher of TheFederalist.com and a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute.

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