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Get Smart

By From the December 2013 issue

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. 

Books for Christmas

Xmas Recommendations: Vol. 2

By 12.18.13

Rod Dreher

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. 

Books for Christmas

Xmas Recommendations: Vol. 1

By 12.17.13

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.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

The C.S. Lewis Industry

By From the December 2013 issue

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.

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Lewis and the Technocracy

By 12.6.13

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.

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Giving Short Schiff

By From the November 2013 issue

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.” 

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Baby You’re a Rich Man

By 12.4.13

Beatles vs. Stones
By John McMillian
(Simon & Schuster, 320 pages)

The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a debate long waged, with cases mounted in high school cafeterias and counterarguments teased out in the basement dens of baby boomers. Contrarian dorm rats pick apart "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" while championing the obscure Mellotron moans of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Ragged copies of The White Album rub grooves with beat-up pressings of Beggars Banquet. Idealism and realism, order and chaos, innovation and authenticity; comparisons between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones reduce to hyperbole fraught with clichés.

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When Neither Lunch Nor Speech Is Free

By 12.3.13

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Homes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America
By Thomas Healy
(Metropolitan Books, 336 pages, $14.99)

Those of us who review books for fun and profit rarely go back to read a tome a second time. We give a review our best shot and then move on. So many books, so little time. But with this biography I have gone back to it again because of a nagging doubt I had with its very title. 

Did that whited sepulcher for civil libertarians, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., really change his mind on free speech? And has the constitutional guarantee of free speech really changed? And if not, as I suspect, just how great a dissent could his carefully hedged demur in a 1919 sedition case have been? 

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Is Anybody There?

By From the November 2013 issue

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars
By Lee Billings
(Penguin, 304 pages, $27.95)

IN THE PRINCIPLES of Philosophy (1642) Descartes lamented: “We do not doubt but that many things exist, or formerly existed and have now ceased to be, which were never seen or known by man, and were never of use to him.” Descartes didn’t know the half of it. As our understanding of the natural world has improved across the past half-millennium there has been a clear trend of dethronement, of blows to the collective self-esteem of Homo sap

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Persecuting Our Heroes

By 11.26.13

Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah” – and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured
By Patrick Robinson, with Matthew McCabe and Jonathan Keefe
De Capo Press, 356 pages, $26.99

On Veterans Day in 2010, I published an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about three heroic Navy SEALs who participated in a bold and successful raid to capture a notorious terrorist, and how they were later accused of “abuse” and ultimately acquitted in court martial trials. I was interested in their story as a Navy veteran and as a lawyer who has represented both companies and individuals accused of wrongdoing by our Department of Justice. Moreover, I have a connection to one of the SEALs: I know Jonathan Keefe’s parents, and his uncle Peter Keefe is a close friend; no finer people walk the planet.