Not a great year for books, was it? Still there were standouts. Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop told us why we shouldn’t trust our local police: Because they’re liable to kill us (and then get away with it). And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Charles Murray comes along in Coming Apart (2013 reprint edition) to tell us how the rot has spread throughout the underclass, white and black.
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.
Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens was the best novel I read in 2013, though I may not read enough contemporary fiction to be the most reliable judge. It is written and plotted with Lethem’s characteristic energy, grace, and exactitude, and its subject—the delusional Stalinist American left—will please TAS’s conservative readers.
Less pleasing to conservative readers, but also a compelling read, is George Packer’s The Unwinding, which tells the story of America’s three-decade run-up in income inequality through an assortment of lives, some famous and some not. Readers may find irritating Packer’s intermittent attempts to echo John Dos Passos’s USA, but there’s no denying the power of Packer’s narratives about ordinary people. For a (mostly) non-narrative expository treatment of the same history, I recommend my own 2012 book, The Great Divergence. Wrap ‘em up together and tie ‘em with a bow!
Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War
By Christian Whiton
(Potomac Books, 304 pages, $29.95)
Christian Whiton is a man with his country in mind. A shrewd patriot and a master of national security history, he is intent on a root-and-branch reform of America’s foreign policy. Indeed, he would not only renovate some of the current principles of foreign policy as it has been recently practiced, but also clean out the stovepipe bureaucracies of our current foreign policy establishment in order to mobilize and coordinate smart power to vindicate American national interests. His sense of urgency stems from the fact that “the closer one gets to…the biggest challenges to U.S. security—especially China, Iran, and Islamism—the more one must contend…with reasons why we should do nothing.” He concludes that the State Department cannot lead the reform, not least because it is the oldest, most ossified labor union in America.
My six-year-old Nora said to me recently that she feels so good going to Barnes & Noble “because there are books everywhere.” That’s my girl! Books are my favorite present to give and to get. Here are a few that I have in mind this year:
Dante’s Divine Comedy, by, ahem, Dante. Somehow, I made it to middle age without having read this masterpiece. This year, staggering around the dark wood midway through the journey of my own life, I picked up the Divine Comedy and and began reading. It has been transformative and redemptive. Beauty, sex, passion, love, tragedy, God—all of life is in that blessed thing. If I had encountered this poem earlier in life, I might not have been capable of appreciating its beauty and taking its wisdom into my battered heart. Don’t buy the new Clive James translation. You need a version with excellent footnotes to decode many of the symbols and allusions. The Hollander translation is the academic standard and my favorite, but John Ciardi’s time-tested version is also quite good and has the best notes.
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.
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.
Countless books, documentaries, and news segments have been queued up to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. That was also the day C.S. Lewis died.
Unlike Kennedy, Lewis died of natural causes: likely one part weak heart, two parts kidney failure. According to Devin Brown’s new biography A Life Observed, at four that afternoon, Lewis’s older brother Warnie “carried tea to the small downstairs bedroom of his home” in the Kilns at Oxford where Lewis was resting. They exchanged a few forgettable words. At 5:30, Warnie “heard a sound and rushed to find his brother lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. A few minutes later…Lewis ceased breathing.” It was one week shy of his 65th birthday.
The fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death has come and gone, perhaps little-noticed by many who were busy memorializing John F. Kennedy, murdered by an assassin on the same day, or rereading Aldous Huxley, who passed away hours later. Most of the encomiums to Lewis that were written focused on his apologetics and his children’s fiction, the Chronicles of Narnia series.
But Lewis wrote fiction for adults too. His best novel, That Hideous Strength, was published in 1945 as the third installment in his science fiction Space Trilogy. Whereas the first two novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, follow the interplanetary travels of the professor Elwin Ransom, That Hideous Strength takes place almost entirely on earth and stars academics Mark and Jane Studdock, with Ransom playing a secondary role.
Sydney and Violet: Their Life With T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis.
By Stephen Klaidman
(Nan A. Talese, 268 pages, $27.95)
PROMINENTLY QUOTED ON the dust jacket of Stephen Klaidman’s Sydney and Violet are a few words from T.S. Eliot’s postscript to the 1962 obituary of Violet Schiff in the Times of London: “I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of arts and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due.”