Books for Christmas

Xmas Recommendations: Vol. 4

From Jeff Sessions to Ruth Wisse.

By 12.20.13

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Jeff Sessions 

Alabamian, historian, and writer Winston Groom’s recent book Kearney’s March is a dramatic account of how the clear and straightforward priorities of President James K. Polk led the United States to double in size from Atlantic to Pacific—and how Mexico’s claim to the Southwest had no firm basis. Groom tells a great story. One feels one is at his place on Mobile Bay listening to the story of how America’s natural expansion occurred. 

Politically and economically, it is time for the United States to review its trade policy. Clyde Prestowitz, who served as President Reagan’s principal trade negotiator for Asia, traces the history of American trade in his book The Betrayal of American Prosperity. He argues that trade as carried out today is contrary to American history, and damaging to American productivity and the middle class. It merits thoughtful consideration. Are we capitulating serenely in the face of calculated state-dominated competitors while businesses collapse, welfare surges, and workforce participation falls to levels not seen since the 1970s? 

Recently I read Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by my friend and former colleague Senator Jim Webb. Those independent, bottom-up democrats were hugely influential culturally, politically, and militarily. Jim’s insights are surprising and ring true. 

Radicals: Portraits of a Destructive Passion is just that. Former radical David Horowitz explores the fatal flaws and seductive goals of the hard radical left.

 Mark Levin’s Men in Black is an insightful survey of Supreme Court jurisprudence from the conservative viewpoint. 

Grass Widow is a short memoir by Viola Goode Liddell, who hails from my little hometown of Camden. It tells the wonderful love story of a young divorcée with a child in a proper Southern town and how she won the heart of its most eligible bachelor. The book is full of great insight into life in the South during the depression. 

Jeff Sessions is the junior U.S. Senator from Alabama.


Amity Shlaes

The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West

My Bondage and other autobiographies by Frederick Douglass

Great Leap Forward by Alexander Field

JFK, Conservative by Ira Stoll

“Down at the Dinghy” (Nine Stories) by J.D. Salinger

Ogden Nash by Douglas M. Parker

If there is a uniting theme to these book choices it is the quest for professionalism. Douglass, for example, sought to depict the abolitionist movement not as it ought to be but as it was. Ogden Nash—what impressed me was the incredible work he put into sustaining his family, difficult given the fickle moods of his chief publisher, the New Yorker. Year in, year out, Nash rode trains around the nation, giving lectures in small towns despite his stomach aches, all so he could keep his family at home. I have not seen the new documentary about J.D. Salinger, but I did page through the book that goes through it, which does much to explain Salinger’s weird behavior and does much to condemn him. How to square this with Salinger’s stories? I went back to “Down at the Dinghy,” one of my all-time favorites, not adolescent at all, really about how to parent in an imperfect world. Around the time Salinger became an impossible human being, he stopped publishing, and probably writing, good stories. Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative is a model of industry and good writing. Stoll digs up those facts about JFK that others have been too lazy to retrieve. I’m also reading the forthcoming Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817 by Myron Magnet. Graceful, and useful—the necessary book of 2014.

Amity Shlaes is director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Institute. Her most recent book is Coolidge (Harper).


R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.

There have been a bundle of good books of late, while our countrypersons are madly tweeting and facebooking and—who knows?—jumping off cliffs. Lew Lehrman has been leading the charge here at AmSpec with his books on sound money and a little book on Lincoln. The little book is titled Lincoln “by Littles” and I am astonished that no major publishing house has grabbed it (though Mr. Lehrman did not give them an opportunity). It is published by the Lehrman Institute but deserves a wider audience. It takes Abraham Lincoln’s life from its early days to the very end and relies on Abe’s own words and those of historians to highlight his beliefs, his character, his triumphs and tragedies. Lehrman has written one of the finest books I have ever read about Lincoln. It should provoke reflection for years to come. Then there are his books on gold. They represent a lifelong undertaking beginning with Money, Gold, and History, nearly 40 years of magazine writing on sound money, and finally The True Gold Standard: A Monetary Reform Plan without Official Currencies, which is all you need to become properly versed in how to save the American economy.

Paul Reid, in his 60s with no prior book-writing experience, came in to rescue the third and final volume of the deceased William Manchester’s trilogy, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. He created a masterpiece. There are now two biographies of Lady Thatcher worthy of her. Jonathan Aitken’s just-released Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality and Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands. I would buy them both if I were you. Finally I would recommend Seth Lipsky’s The Rise of Abraham Cahan about the legendary editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, and Jim Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. These are books that told me something I did not know and that I should know, Lipsky’s not surprisingly, Piereson’s very surprisingly.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is founder and editor of The American Spectator.


Jesse Walker

When someone asks me to recommend a book—any book I want, with no constraints—more often than not I tell him to read Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman (1967). It’s brilliant, it’s funny, and it makes the most compelling case you’ll ever read that people can turn into bicycles.

While I’m on the subject of Irish novels: Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) is nearly as funny as O’Brien’s book, but while The Third Policeman has a proper cult devoted to it—the thing even had a cameo on Lost—Wall’s satire about the Devil and a monk is barely known here in the States. Do your part to rectify that.

At this point I probably should back off from the funny fiction and suggest some worthy tome on public policy or history. Instead I’ll go all-in and recommend a kids’ book. I just reread Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (1979) with my older daughter, and it’s even better than I remembered from my own childhood: a novel that spoofs everything from junior high school to psychiatry to the New Age, unspooling itself so merrily that you might not notice until it’s over that it had a lot of wisdom to impart along with the laughs. Ideal for the smart kid on your holiday list, especially if she’ll let you borrow it when she’s done.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason. His most recent book is The United States of Paranoia (HarperCollins), which also makes a fine Christmas gift.


Ruth Wisse

Many books come to mind, but none as forcefully as the recently issued Like Dreamers, by Yossi Klein Halevi. Its title is drawn from Psalm 136: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion we were like dreamers. Then our mouths filled with laughter, And our tongues with songs of joy. Then they said among the nations: ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us.” The book is written in that spirit.

Ruth Wisse is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press). 

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