Anyone who appreciates brilliant food and larger-than-life personalities will love journalist Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (Vintage), one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. Working on a New Yorker profile of Mario Batali, the middle-aged Buford gets the crazy idea of becoming a “kitchen slave” at the famous chef’s flagship restaurant, Babbo, and writing about the experience. Heat, the end result, brings us a wonderfully detailed and funny inside view of what makes a great kitchen succeed: ceaseless hard work, entrepreneurial drive, and creative genius. And better still, it provides vivid portraits not only of Batali — whose Falstaffian capacity for drink and food is exceeded only by his superhuman energy — but also of the chef’s extraordinary lieutenants and early mentors and inspirations.
I’m a basketball junkie — a lifelong Boston Celtics fan — and had long awaited a book like Bill Simmons’s mammoth The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (ESPN). Best known as ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” Simmons often writes in a free-associational frenzy, but his 700-page book abounds with insights about the game and fascinating player rankings (learn, definitively, why Celtics center Bill Russell was a much better player than his rival Wilt Chamberlain); useful counterfactuals (imagine if the Portland Trailblazers had selected Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft instead of passing him over for injury-plagued center Sam Bowie); and laugh-out-loud humor (the author was a writer for comedian and talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel). Few could read this book front to back, but frequent dives will make you a (much) more informed hoops fan. Malcolm Gladwell provides an amusing introduction on Simmons as a basketball fan — or more accurately, fanatic.
In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton University Press), the novelist and philosopher Pascal Bruckner anatomizes the self-hatred that afflicts Western intellectuals when confronting enemies — like Islamic fanatics — who seek to eradicate democratic society and its freedoms. The West’s greatness is linked inextricably to its self-critical capacity, as Bruckner recognizes, but a kind of pathological “hypercriticism” has become increasingly prevalent that assumes we’re always wrong, always to blame, always the bad guy. Bruckner’s brilliant short book calls for the restoration of a prudent but vigorous Western self-respect; the alternative is civilizational suicide.
Brian Anderson is the editor of City Journal.
Normal people usually want to read entertaining books for pleasure. Policy nerds in Washington, like me, are more likely to favor dull but informative tomes. Of course, the sad fact is that many of us Washingtonians tend to find dull to be the real interesting.
Not dull is Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books). Bacevich is one of the most trenchant critics of the many conservatives who have adopted Woodrow Wilson as their patron saint. Washington Rules builds on his earlier work to critique America’s seeming policy of permanent war.
Bacevich is a Catholic and former Army colonel who lost a son in Iraq. It’s hard to find a more serious or traditional conservative. But he persuasively warns against the corrosive impact of an overly militarized policy on the American republic.
It’s an argument that any believer in a government of limited powers committed to protecting individual liberty must take seriously. Especially during the Obama era. These days it is easy to denounce the depredations of the left. But conservatives also must rethink what they stand for.
In the same genre is Michael Mandelbaum’s The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (PublicAffairs). Mandelbaum makes no pretense of being a conservative, but he discusses the practical difficulty of Washington playing globocop when it is broke.
Conservatives rightly target burgeoning social programs in the deficit debate. But there’s no reason to exempt “defense” when so much military spending goes to defend other countries — the populous and prosperous Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans, in particular. Mandelbaum gets a lot wrong, but his basic point is irrefutable. Uncle Sam is a bankrupt wastrel who no longer can afford to subsidize foreign welfare queens.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t serious international challenges facing America. Stefan Halper takes on the People’s Republic of China in The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books).
Halper’s conclusion actually isn’t as certain as his title. The PRC need not win the global great game. But he raises an important alarm about the challenge that Beijing may eventually pose to America. China remains far behind the U.S. militarily and will be poor, even with a large economy, for years to come. However, America’s policy toward the PRC tends to be fragmented and short-sighted. Washington needs to do better if China lives up to its geopolitical potential.
America’s biggest current international challenge is Afghanistan. Packed with information about that distant Central Asian land is Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press). The book challenges some hoary myths. For instance, Afghanistan wasn’t much of a “graveyard of empires” until the 1800s. Before that the territory was more a battleground for empires. Reigning empires were dispatched to the geopolitical cemetery by other empires, not the locals. Whatever one thinks of the Bush/Obama effort at nation-building — I believe it’s foolish — it’s impossible not to sympathize with people who have suffered through war for most of the last four decades.
One of the best releases of the year is Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Thomas Nelson). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Christian who helped form the “confessing church,” which resisted the Nazis in Germany. But Bonhoeffer went further, joining the political resistance. He was murdered shortly before the war ended.
Metaxas tells a great story extraordinarily well. Bonhoeffer is a particularly appropriate book for Christmas. For all the talk of “persecution” of Christians in America, most believers live privileged lives in a society that remains one of the freest on earth. Bonhoeffer faced persecution by one of the most monstrous regimes in human history, but responded courageously, in contrast to so many others who professed the same faith.
The Obama administration’s campaign to nationalize the health care system is almost certainly its most disastrous “success.” To understand our bleak medical future one should read Sally C. Pipes’s The Truth about Obamacare (Regnery). The book is not for the faint-hearted. But it reminds us why we must continue working to repeal the Democrats’ misbegotten “reform.”
No set of Christmas readings list is complete without at least one non-political book. I nominate George Dean and Maxine Brady’s Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets (Abrams). The average chess player doesn’t pay a lot of attention to differences among sets. However, Dean, a physician from Michigan, has accumulated one of the world’s best, if not the world’s best, chess set collections. Chess Masterpieces mixes an informative history of the game with pictures from Dean’s collection. As a fellow collector, his acquisitions fill me with shameful lust. But even the non-collector will appreciate the beauty and variety of the many sets created throughout the centuries.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
Never trust those who recommend Shakespeare. Never believe them when they piously intone that you ought to read Dante. Turn quickly and walk away from those who praise Homer. Wash your hands after meeting the ones who urge Virgil.
Not because you shouldn’t read these authors, but because they’re so far beyond mentioning in lists of recommended books that it’s absurd to include them. Others abide our question. Thou art free, as Matthew Arnold wrote of Shakespeare. Anybody who names them isn’t a reader. Isn’t a book guy or gal. Anybody who names them is an amateur.
Only slightly better are the people who list P. G. Wodehouse, or Rex Stout, or Dashiell Hammett, or Damon Runyon. I mean, if you haven’t read Uncle Fred in the Springtime or Some Buried Caesar or Red Harvest or “Little Miss Marker,” then, yeah, stop what you’re doing — which is reading this — and go read that. Now. It’s better than this. I’ll wait.
Okay, that’s over with. These are the recommendations of readers who’ve stumbled on something good — but they’re typical recommendations. You don’t actually need to be told about these books. They’re somewhere on every list of Christmas recommendations assembled in the last 50 years. Which, don’t get me wrong, they deserved to be. Sure, absolutely. But isn’t it kind of a yawn to name them again? And again? And again…
Of course, once we take out of consideration the books that everybody recommends, what’s left? Only the eccentric, I’m afraid — or maybe I shouldn’t say afraid, since it’s a pretty common symptom of eccentricity not to be afraid of the partially peculiar, the apparently unusual, and the downright odd. So here (he fearlessly and eccentrically opined) are five books nobody is recommending as Christmas presents for readers — five books that are genuinely good in their own way, entirely enjoyable, and pretty much forgotten.
Elliot Paul, The Mysterious Mickey Finn (1939). Paris in the 1920s — pretty girls, business-like gangsters, crazed artists, drunken ambassadors, sardonic Frenchmen, young Americans, and the moveable feast — all in a mild, comic mystery.
The Poems of George Crabbe (1754-1832). Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows, wrote E. A. Robinson of the now-faded poet. But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still. Look, it doesn’t matter that Byron called him “Nature’s sternest painter,” just as it doesn’t matter that he still gets a line or two in standard anthologies. Nobody reads Crabbe anymore because he’s so painful to read — the unsentimental, in good, hard doses. George Crabbe at his best is poetry’s answer to Wordsworth at his worst.
Raymond Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition During the Middle Ages: Outlines of a Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (1939). Yes, a book on medieval manuscripts. I’m not a scholar of this stuff. Odds are you’re not, either. But there are small perfections in this world, perfect gems of their kind, and this is one. The German-Canadian scholar calmly walks through all mentions of Plato in the surviving Latin manuscripts and determines what, exactly, the name Plato meant when people in the Middle Ages used it. Modern academics would take 700 pages to attempt the same feat — and have filled their preface with loud boasts of originality. The great humanist and historian of philosophy does it in 58 pages of exact prose and perfected scholarship.
Hartzell Spence’s Get Thee Behind Me (1943). It was the golden age of childhood memoirs, till we sickened on their sweetness. From Betty Smith’s Irish Catholic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Sydney Taylor’s Jewish All-of-a-Kind Family, to say nothing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s eight Little House on the Prairie volumes. Kathryn Forbes’s 1943 Mama’s Bank Account and Clarence Day’s Life with Father. The Gilbreths’ Cheaper by the Dozen and Bellamy Partridge’s Country Lawyer. After the run of ugly, self-congratulatory memoirs of childhood over the last 20 years, however, a little sweetness is welcome again. And Spence’s once-bestselling memoirs, about being a preacher’s son on the Methodist circuit in Iowa, are the ones no one seems to remember.
Kirsten Bakis’s Lives of the Monster Dogs (Grand Central Publishing). It was announced this summer that plans are afoot to make a film of this wonderfully strange first novel about a group of biologically engineered talking dogs who arrive one day in New York speaking fluent German and dressed in the height of Victorian fashion. If you missed the book when it came out, read it quick, before the movie ruins it. As good as Frankenstein, better than The Island of Dr. Moreau, and almost up to the level of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a vision of the sadness unto which the modern Prometheus of biotech could deliver us.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.
L. BRENT BOZELL III
Control Freaks: 7 Ways Liberals Plan to Ruin Your Life (Regnery), by Terrence “Terry” Jeffrey. A disclaimer: Terry is a colleague (he is editor in chief of CNSNews.com, which I founded), and he’s also a friend. “Control Freaks”? Liberals “Plan to Ruin”? These are pretty tough words, but Jeffrey backs them up. In fact, of the endless number of political books written in the past two years to explain the agenda of Team Obama, Control Freaks should register on anyone’s short list of must reads. Jeffrey takes seven themes — movement, retirement, health care, property, speech, life, and conscience — and explores exactly what the radicals running 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have in store. Jeffrey first explores the writings of the Founders to understand their specific thoughts on each theme, then studies the writings and speeches of Obama’s mentors (and, of course, Obama himself) to understand how, in each instance, theirs is a most radical agenda designed to formulate government control over, well, pretty damn much everything. It’s a sobering but absolutely necessary read.
William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books), by Lee Edwards. A disclaimer: the subject is family. The moment WFB passed away you could almost hear laptops all over the country crackling to life as journalists everywhere set out to explain this force of issue. Many wonderful things have been penned and great works are in process, I’m sure, but William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement will surely stand the test of time as one of the best. Edwards enjoys certain advantages not afforded other authors. He is a historian by craft, having written several other biographies, and, more to the point, he’s a historian of conservatives. Second, he is a conservative and in that sense understands the “id” of the movement. Third, he was a friend of Bill’s (not to be confused with Friend of Bill, because those kinds of friends are regularly thrown under buses, and desks) for many years. The end result is a crisp, accurate, and thoroughly enjoyable 200-page journey, following in this man’s footsteps as he marches forward through one of the most exhausting and exciting careers in American history.
The House of Getty (Henry Holt and Co.), by Russell Miller. I really never cared to know much about the life of Jean-Paul Getty until a friend discussed this book and later lent it to me. Pick it up and it’s can’t-put-it-down time. Thank goodness it was written a quarter-century ago, when authors knew how to write biographies about business tycoons without automatically having it as the goal their destruction. Miller treats his subject with utter fairness: the negative is covered when necessary, and in context. The unsavory is covered if pertinent. The gossip (lots and lots of womanizing) is covered because, well, Getty probably wanted it. Like most self-made billionaires who become the richest men on the entire planet, Getty was a complex — and fascinating — man. He was known for his obsession with money, a billionaire who kept hand-written logs detailing tips at restaurants but was also known to drop millions on a painting that caught his imagination. He could throw a party at his castle and have literally thousands of black-tied guests (most uninvited) arrive, yet he was a loner who left his fortune not to his family, but to a building. It’s a read that can make a flight on even US Air enjoyable.
L. Brent Bozell III is president of the Media Research Center.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Madison Books), by Michael Novak.
Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (Basic Books), by Charles Murray.
The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek .
Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.
If you want to understand the people and the ideas behind the American Revolution, and you haven’t read the work of MIT historian Pauline Maier, then your understanding is incomplete. Her fourth book on America’s founding, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution: 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster) is, incredibly, the first book to tell the tumultuous story of how the Constitution was ratified by the states. Maier takes no side in the debates. Through her masterful craftsmanship, she fleshes out the leaders who promoted and opposed this radical new form of government and brings their arguments to life. Ratification ought to be a top contender for the Pulitzer Prize in history. It is an impressive work of scholarship and storytelling that reshapes our understanding of our nation’s founding.
I’m one of those people who stops the remote every time it finds a poker tournament. If you have anyone like this on your gift list, James McManus’s Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) might be a good bet. McManus’s generalizations can be overly sweeping, and he has a tendency to pursue interesting but not always highly relevant tangents. Still, he knows his subject, and Cowboys Full offers a fascinating, entertaining, comprehensive, and myth-debunking history of what he calls “America’s game.”
Now what about that person you really want to impress? Perhaps, through hard work and blind luck, you suddenly find yourself in a social circle a bit beyond your comfort zone. Maybe your wife has become friendly with a wise Latina woman, or you let your boss beat you at golf so many times that you found a country club membership attached to your paycheck and you need something exceptional to even the score. You want a gift that will both delight the recipient and convey the message that you are a person of surpassing taste and refinement.
In such a situation, I would recommend any paperback with a picture of a sexy female vampire on the cover. Wrap it sloppily in Twilight wrapping paper and sign the name of your most bitter rival. Then, buy the most expensive bottle of Scotch you can afford, stick a bow on it, reference Shakespeare or Groucho Marx on the card, and hand-deliver it. You can’t go wrong.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Top of my list, The Roots of Obama’s Rage (Regnery) by Dinesh D’Souza. Together with David Limbaugh’s Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama (Regnery), it gives an enlightened view of our government. For the economic view of the devastation we face, The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America (Harper) by Daniel Hannan is very valuable. In a different vein, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (Harper Paperbacks) is a very readable account of our submarine espionage during the Cold War, particularly our taping of the Soviets’ underwater cables. Finally, Regnery’s Politically Incorrect Guides are valuable primers for beating the liberals on facts.
Lee Hanley is a member of the board of directors of The American Spectator Foundation.
It would not be comme il faut for me, the publisher of Encounter Books, to recommend any books published by Encounter. So I will forbear to recommend Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus, the irresistible collection of writings of William F. Buckley Jr. that Bill’s longtime assistant Linda Bridges and I put together. I will also resist the temptation of recommending The Grand Jihad, Andrew McCarthy’s indispensable anatomy of how the Muslim Brotherhood has been executing its plan to Islamize the West, or Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, William Voegeli’s penetrating look at that great ball of pathology and failed policy we call the welfare state. Finally, I absolutely refuse to say anything at all about Encounter Broadsides, the nearly 20 pamphlets we’ve published on the burning issues of the day, from health care “reform” to the Obama administration’s efforts to transform the United States military from a “superpower to a paper tiger.” That last phrase is from Jed Babbin, the author of our Broadside on what the Obama administration is doing to the military, and if I weren’t determined to avoid the topic altogether, I would urge you to consider reading his Broadside just as I would urge you read the others: Betsy McCaughey and David Gratzer on the expensive embarrassment that is health care “reform,” Michael Mukasey on the administration’s prosecution of the war on terror, E. J. McMahon on the scandal (he calls it a “plague”) of public sector pensions, Steve Moore on Obama and the economic crisis, Peter Ferrara on Obama’s tax policies, which he more forthrightly calls Obama’s tax “piracy.” There are others — Diana Furchtgott-Roth on feminism, Josh Muravchik on Obama’s first year in office, Mark Krikorian on immigration, Michael Ledeen on the administration’s policy toward (read: “betrayal of”) Israel, Andy McCarthy on the politicization of the Justice Department under Eric Holder, etc. etc. It is, if I do say so myself, an amazing series — at 5,000-7,000 words, they’re brief but potent — and I hope some disinterested person will appear to urge them on the attention of American Spectator readers.
Since I have recused myself from saying anything at all about any Encounter titles, I am instead going to recommend you betake yourself to your web browser (or to your local book emporium), click on Amazon (or Barnes & Noble), and type in “Daniel Hannan” or “The New Road to Serfdom: a Letter of Warning to America.” Although it is not published by Encounter, I wish that it had been. It is, as I said in a review for the Weekly Standard, “in equal parts a paean to ordered liberty and an admonition against the snares of central planning and rule by cadres of self-perpetuating elites.” Europe has traveled down that road, with baleful results: let’s hope we manage another route.
Roger Kimball is co-editor and co-publisher of the New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.
For Catholic readers, the biggest book of the year is a late arrival — and potentially an ideal Christmas gift. By the time these recommendations appear, Light of the World (Ignatius) should be available in bookstores. I have just been reading the galleys, and this book is dynamite.
For the first time in history, a Roman pontiff has agreed to an in-depth interview. As in two previous interview-books done before his papal election (both in collaboration with the same journalist, Peter Seewald), Pope Benedict answers tough questions directly, and while his manner of speech is always gentle, the content of his replies is provocative. You might say that he wears padded gloves, but he does not pull his punches. His thoughts on a wide variety of topics — the sex-abuse scandal, the meaning of infallibility, the prospects for ecumenism, the battle against relativism, the confrontation with Islam, even the possibility of his own resignation — will delight orthodox Catholics, outrage dissidents, and challenge many readers to reconsider their understanding of the Catholic faith.
And speaking of popes: When Witness to Hope appeared in 1999, George Weigel established his credentials as the authoritative biographer of Pope John Paul II. Yet that book could not be considered definitive, since the subject was still very much alive; the story had not reached its conclusion. Now with The End and the Beginning, Weigel has finished his narrative. He retraces much of the story that he set forth in Witness to Hope, seasoning it with new material drawn from the archives of the Polish secret police, among other sources. The main focus of this book is the late pope’s starring role in the collapse of Communism. But Weigel also provides a fresh perspective on the unforgettable drama of the Polish pontiff’s final suffering and death.
Every five years or so I discover a “new” American novel — new to me, that is; usually the book has been on the market for a few years before my discovery. I am still recommending Leif Enger’s beautiful Peace Like a River (Atlantic Monthly) to anyone who will listen. It is The Great American Novel, complete with everything you expect in such a work: distinctly American setting and dialect, long journey, lives and principles at stake, depth of meaning, exciting plot, and satisfying conclusion.
This year’s discovery was Gilead: A Novel (Picador), another unmistakably American book set in small-town Iowa. The portrait that Marilynne Robinson sketches of an aging Protestant preacher invites comparison with the Bernanos classic, The Diary of a Country Priest.
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (cwnews.com) and the author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture.
My reading of fiction is often burdened by a tendency to see a movie in the pages. Most times the thought of the effort and time involved in committing myself to such a preposterous journey is enough to deter me from taking even the first perilous steps. Occasionally, however, the lure of the literary work, its characters and themes, the dialogue, action, and plot stir up such a frenzy of enthusiasm, such an excitement of the imagination that with a heavy sigh I resign myself to yet another quixotic escapade across a minefield of sprocket-holed dreams and Hollywood pitch meetings, trying to explain the insanities of the film business to highly skeptical investors, trying to justify another decade building an opera house in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.
As the list of novels I’d like to adapt to film has grown ever longer, whatever time allotted to me in this life has grown ever shorter. Hence the acute realization that most of these books won’t make my cut. Indeed, any film could be your last. All sorts of genres are on my little list, but I’ll confine myself today to four novels which may be of particular interest to readers of The American Spectator. Each of the authors, heralded in their own day, has in recent times fallen into an ill-deserved obscurity.
Anatole France’s The Gods Must Have Blood (Les Dieux Ont Soif, 1912) is set in Paris during the Terror. It brilliantly contrasts two archetypes, the sage who accepts human beings one at a time, warts and all, with the revolutionary idealist who is hell-bent on perfecting mankind. We know where that usually ends up. As a prototype for the horrors of the 20th century, the French Revolution produced the original ideological purists, those who perfected the high-minded rationalizations on dehumanizing their opponents. France’s achievement is that his novel doesn’t read anything like a political tract. From start to finish it is inhabited with flesh-and-blood characters who are each, in their own light or dark way, exceedingly attractive, even seductive.
As a young man William Herrick joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade just in time to take part in another idealistic European bloodbath, this time across the cities and villages of Spain. His novel Hermanos! (1969) recounts the authentic transformation of a young leftist revolutionary to a realistic survivor shorn of ideological pretensions and political cant. Like Anatole France’s work, written about a half century later, it is first and foremost a carefully drawn character study. Commenting on one of the political commissars to whom he must report, he says, “They will hurt you the first time you tell them a truth they don’t want to hear.” Sound familiar?
Another novel to explore man’s penchant for idea-driven violence is Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell (1940). Oliver is a conservative patriot who loves his own country (America) but is also rooted in tradition and tied by blood to the mother country (England). Unwilling to join in on the tarring and feathering of his neighbors and hesitant to the resort to violence to achieve political ends, he finds himself branded as a Tory. To see Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Yorktown through Wiswell’s eyes is to have the scales fall away. Curiously, this doesn’t make the actions of the patriots less heroic. It puts them in a new light that paradoxically reveals their achievement as all the more extraordinary.
Harold Frederic’s The Copperhead (1899), which the great American critic Edmund Wilson praised as a brave and singular book that “differs fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction,” is the story of Abner Beech, a stubborn and righteous farmer of upstate New York, who defies his neighbors and his government in the bloody and contentious autumn of 1862.
The Copperhead is a story of the violent passions and burning feuds that set ablaze the home front, a timeless and deeply moving examination of the price of dissent, the place of the individual amidst the hysteria of wartime, and the awful cost of war — a cost measured not in dollars but in fractured families, broken loves, and men dead before their time. I’ve already embarked on this cinematic journey: a screenplay adaptation has been written and we are in the process of casting the movie for filming in the summer of 2011.
Altogether, the wonder of these four authors is in capturing both the zealotry of the utopian mind and the intellect of the man of liberty. If in their reading anyone agrees with me that they would make great films and has access to tens of millions of investment capital — do call.
Ron Maxwell wrote and directed the movies Gettysburg and Gods & Generals.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, so let me hoist the mistletoe over a few new books by good friends that would make excellent stocking stuffers. Hard to know where to begin here. George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Doubleday Religion) is the second volume of his biography, and this one includes lots of hitherto sealed bits from Communist archives — which will help you understand why the Soviets were so keen to have the man from Krakow shot. Moving on, the first novel of Andrew Klavan’s that I read was Empire of Lies (Vanguard Press), a racy page-turner about a terrorist plot in New York whose pages I turned even though I’m not usually into racy thrillers. Now he’s out with The Identity Man (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a novel about a lowlife being pursued for a crime he didn’t commit. Like all of Andrew’s insights into his darker characters, this one led me to wonder what in the world Andrew did before he turned to fiction.
My former colleagues in the White House have also offered their own contributions to this year’s Christmas bounty. Though out earlier this year, Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (Threshold Editions) provides a spirited account by the man who has never been forgiven for winning a presidential election in 2000 — and then doing it again in 2004. My former colleague in speechwriting Marc Thiessen has written the book on torture and the facts of enhanced interrogation. It’s called Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack (Regnery); whatever your views on the torture debate, it’s worth getting the facts. And though I have not yet finished it, I can tell you I’ve ordered several copies of my former boss’s Decision Points (Crown). My own memory of this good man was the day he gave a speech announcing the surge, knowing that no one wanted to hear that but determined the United States would not leave the Iraqis the way we left the Vietnamese: run off an embassy rooftop.
Rarely do I dissent from Master Tyrrell, but I do disagree with his assessment that President Bush was a “grave disappointment” — and I think history will be on my side. Nevertheless I would be remiss if I overlooked After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery (Thomas Nelson). In fact Bob is looking almost prophetic these days, having noted, long before we really saw the Tea Parties, that the predictable confident press assertions we were all hearing about the “death” of conservatism in the days after President Obama was elected makes ours “the longest dying political movement in American history.”
Finally, these are not new, but worth a read on any holiday. I didn’t manage to get to Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Harper Perennial) until after the 2008 election. Read it today and you will be stunned by the parallels — mostly unhappy ones — between the New Deal and what we have today. Andy Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Grove Press) is, as one reviewer described it, “a charming expedition into the extraordinary world of those who love, hate, market, and impersonate Lincoln.” In particular I recommend the chapter on a convention of Lincoln impersonators. And always worth reading is Allan Guelzo’s Redeemer President (Wm. B. Eerdmans), a classic that helps explain why the evangelicals and free marketeers who find their home in the GOP today were also a prominent part of Lincoln’s original Republican Party.
And if Santa’s reading, I wouldn’t mind waking up to a copy of Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Penguin) under the McGurn tree this December 25.
William McGurn is the Main Street columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
As the result of a question I got from my 12-year-old daughter I am rereading (and commend to all parents of an inquisitive young kid) James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.
Jeremiah Milbank is president of the JM Foundation.
Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne) is a wonderful read, particularly at Christmas, and while you read you hear the cracking of the liberals’ icy-cold objection to allowing God in the public square.
Meyer makes a compelling case that life did not come into being because of random collisions of atoms in the prebiotic soup, but rather because an intelligent designer — an intelligence, or “mind” — created it.
A few quick points, in an attempt to give a flavor of Meyer’s 500 pages of argument.
First: Meyer says the “odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebiotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10 164.” That’s 10 with 164 zeros after it. Then Meyer says the probability of producing “all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell” is 1 in 1041,000. That seems like a very small chance — indeed, the argument sounds conclusive. But wait a minute: didn’t those proteins have a long, long time, a billion years in fact, to play the odds? Yes, but…
What are the odds of flipping a coin 10 times and having it come up heads every time? Small: (1/2)10, or one out of 1,024. But suppose you were to do 10 flips 10,000 times? Well, that makes it more likely you could get at least one series of 10 heads in a row. Meyer calls those 10,000 flip-units the “probabilistic resources.”
So one questions is, what were the probabilistic resources for the proteins? How much time, how much opportunity, was available for their development? Meyer computes the answer at 10139. Or rather, only 10 139, the point being that the probabilistic resources were magnitudes below the odds (1 in 10164 or 1 in 1041,000) of development by chance.
Second: Suppose you buy a roulette wheel and start spinning it in your living room and the ball, improbably, lands in 16 red 10 times in a row. What do you conclude? You conclude the wheel is defective. You examine it and you discover a flaw, a nick or a ridge or some other imperfection, that causes the ball to land in the same slot every time.
But suppose you’re a croupier at a casino and one of the players, Tim Geithner, say, bets on 16 red and the ball, also improbably, lands on 16 red 10 times in a row. Now what do you conclude? You conclude: HE’S CHEATING! (Of course, readers of this magazine knew that already.) The improbability of 10 16 reds is no greater than it was in your living room, but the conclusion is different because there’s an intelligent consequence, a functional significance, to the ball’s equally improbable behavior: Geithner wins money. (IRS please note.)
But the development of life isn’t actually like roulette. In roulette, the ball has to land somewhere. But DNA, which is actually an information package, didn’t have to develop into a package that conveyed any useful information at all. Its development was more like scattering Scrabble letters on the floor. You could scatter all day and it is not inevitable that they would form even multi-letter words, much less a sentence like, “In the beginning was the Word,” a sentence that contains information and conveys meaning. And if the Scrabble letters did form a sentence, you would fall down in surprise (with practice, landing on your knees) and say, “Somebody did that!”
That somebody is the intelligent designer, by whatever name you choose to call him, her, or it.
There is much, much more to Signature in the Cell. But here’s the real significance of Meyer’s book and the argument for intelligent design. Charles Murray argued in his 2009 AEI lecture that in the next two decades or so, science, specifically the findings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists, will shatter the two central myths of liberalism, which Murray labels “the equality premise” (when different groups achieve different results in life it’s because of bad human behavior and an unfair society) and “the New Man premise” (that “human beings are malleable through the right government interventions”).
Likewise, the argument — the argument from science — for intelligent design will cripple the liberals’ ability to deny the role of intelligent design. You can call that intelligent designer God if you choose, but you don’t have to. But if it’s okay to conclude, through science, that “god” exists, it will be okay to teach it in the public schools. And if it’s okay to allow a scientific god into the schools, it won’t make much sense to exclude a religious god. From the schools or from the public square.
The liberals’ interpretation of the First Amendment, which never made any sense, will become implausible. God will return to the public square, in Scarsdale, in 90210, and in your town as well. And, Deo Gratias, to a Supreme Court near you. Merry Christmas.
Daniel Oliver is a senior director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.
For an exquisite look at appeasement in all its squalid forms, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and the Roots of Appeasement (Penguin) by the great British historian Ian Kershaw. Don’t be deceived by the forwardness of the title — this is the subtlest, most searching, and elegantly written of works about a considerable class of English advocates of Hitler, and others self-deceived they were only searching for peace. It’s filled with the kind of delusion rampant in the country today — which is to say, the character of appeasers never changes.
Second, on the same subject, Lynne Olson’s wonderful Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), taken from diaries and letters of British MPs and allies, determined to stop the appeaser-in-chief, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The book’s chief focus is on the central role in this struggle played by people other than Churchill — heroic figures. The sense of immediacy the diaries create is breathtaking: you are there. You will not easily forget this picture of the entire British press rendered silent, unable to report what was actually going on, by dictate of the prime minister.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Random House) — a superb memoir of friendship, rare for its absence of cant and predictable dithering. A brilliantly written new work by Gail Caldwell.
Dorothy Rabinowitz is a member of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board.
ALFRED S. REGNERY
There is no end to books about the Germans and World War II, the Holocaust, and the battles and the evils of Nazism, but very few that explain the life of German civilians during those awful years. Berlin at War (Basic Books), by historian Roger Moorhouse, reminds us that war is not only about the fighting men, but the civilians as well. Berlin, in 1939, was one of the great capitals of Europe — sophisticated, urbane, highly cultured and diverse, and populated by nearly 4 million people, including almost a third of Germany’s Jews. It was also, of course, headquarters for Hitler’s dictatorship and capital of the Reich. By 1945 the city was a shambles, almost totally destroyed by Allied bombs and occupied by the Soviet army. An unknown number of German civilians had died — a quarter of a million perished in just the last three weeks of the war — and all but a couple thousand Jews had been deported and killed. This fascinating and beautifully written book tells the heart-rending story of those who died and those who survived — a part of World War II history that we all should know.
You would think that not much could be more boring than a history of shipping containers, but you would be wrong. Few things have had a greater impact on business, on the economy, and on world trade than those ugly metal boxes we see on trucks, on trains, on ship decks, and stacked high in every port in the world. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press) by Marc Levinson is the story of a simple but innovative idea that paved the way to globalization; revolutionized sea, rail, and truck transport; was one of the main reasons for deregulation of the transportation industry; caused massive job loss among workers in manufacturing and wholesaling, not to mention dockworkers — and was fought by the unions every step of the way. Today, world ports handle 1.5 million of these steel boxes, unheard of until the 1960s, every week. Their story is the stuff of every entrepreneur’s dreams — and by no means is it as boring as you might think.
Alfred S. Regnery is publisher of The American Spectator.
In a mere 116 pages, Philip Terzian’s Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century (Encounter) powerfully paints FDR and Ike as partner statesmen who shrewdly ushered a “stricken” world into one where democratic America was dominant. The Hudson River patrician and the Midwestern creamery worker’s son were from different regions, economic backgrounds, and political parties. But they shared a devotion to expanding American ideals, confident those ideals could defeat totalitarian evils and also replace fading European imperialism. Thanks to FDR and Ike, America became a benign empire that protected Western culture from aggressive enemies.
Harry Truman, the president in between FDR and Ike, is barely mentioned in Architects, despite Truman’s own decisive role in solidifying America as postwar global hegemon. Architects presumably means no slight to Truman, but did not want to distract from the unique partnership between FDR and Ike. Truman was FDR’s vice president for only the few weeks of his uncompleted fourth term. As senator from Missouri, and even as vice president, he knew FDR only fleetingly. His selection as FDR’s veep was the decision of Democratic kingmakers, to whom a war-focused FDR deferred. In contrast, it was FDR, at the urging of his trusted Army chief of staff General George Marshall, who plucked Ike from obscurity as a prewar colonel. Under FDR’s confident patronage, Ike led the Anglo-American invasions of North Africa and France, congealing the Western Alliance and rising to five-star general.
Ike gloriously ended the war in Europe as America’s most admired man, only weeks after his great patron had died at the height of his powers. FDR had already envisioned and organized the postwar world of American dominance that Ike would adeptly perpetuate. Truman, at times misunderstanding and resenting his predecessor and successor, was prototypically frank and transparent, viewing indirection as dissimulation. FDR and Ike were both masters of indirection, of poker faces, and of practicing the hidden hand. They inspired national and even global confidence in their goodwill even as they sometimes ruthlessly advanced their own, and America’s, interests.
Architects offers brief but somewhat contrarian biographic sketches of FDR and Ike. FDR was never the superficial socialite before his crippling bout with polio, as often portrayed. In worldview, ambition, and discipline, he was the same man as before. FDR was shaped in adolescence by the Anglican clergyman and Groton schoolmaster Endicott Peabody, who pushed FDR toward public service and strengthened his WASP assumption of American exceptionalism. The other decisive political influence was FDR’s distant cousin, and uncle to his wife, Eleanor, President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he called “the greatest man I ever knew.” FDR successfully followed his plan to follow Uncle Teddy’s career path from assistant Navy secretary to New York’s governor to president. He also heeded Teddy’s boundless devotion to America’s global power.
Ike from the start shared FDR’s outward affability, hiding an inner complexity. But Ike’s persona was more sternly simple. Unlike FDR, he rose from obscurity initially without wealth, status, or patrons. Like FDR, he was decisively shaped by his strong and doting mother, though Ike shared his with a large family. As Groton shaped FDR, so West Point, offering free education to a modest working man’s son, shaped Ike. Ike’s talents were widely recognized by his Army superiors, but his ability to rise was constrained by the U.S. military’s intra-war smallness, and by Ike’s frustrating absence from combat in World War I. Descended from German immigrants, Ike would eventually smash Hitler’s Germany, and felt special revulsion over Germany’s crimes.
A jealous General Patton sarcastically complained that Ike was “the best general the British have.” Ike assiduously cultivated America’s wartime alliance with Britain, no less than did FDR. But while FDR’s WASP roots naturally disposed him toward Britain, Ike’s own Germanic and isolationist Midwestern background offered more contrast. Ike became a committed internationalist, crafting a web of Cold War international alliances. Like FDR, the preservation of American power was always foremost. FDR rescued wartime Britain but did not fail to exploit the British Empire’s implosion to advance America. Ike nurtured the special relationship with British premiers he knew from the war. But he coldly humiliated Britain’s Suez adventure, believing the intervention at odds with America’s interests.
Neither FDR nor Ike was captive to sentiment at the expense of the national interest. FDR developed nukes and unhesitatingly would have used them. Ike was wary of war, and for this reason threatened nukes against North Korea and, by implication, the Soviets. Waging war, or practicing brinkmanship in defense of peace, FDR and Ike, whatever they privately felt, still exuded public serenity, reassuring their nation and inspiring international regard.
Architects notes that FDR is remembered for the welfare state and Ike for his warning against the military-industrial complex. But both were primarily “patriots who consecrated themselves to the service of the United States and guided their country in its methodical embrace of global responsibility.” Democratic success and capitalist prosperity can foster a dangerous complacency. FDR and Ike, both shrewd realists, knew the world was often hostile to American ideals. They strove for a world in which those ideals could survive and thrive.
There is a minor error in Architects. FDR’s World War I boss, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, was a “teetotaling” Methodist, not a Baptist! That aside, Architects is an all too brief but wonderful essay on the FDR/Ike partnership that shaped America for the last 70 years. (Disclosure: Architects author Philip Terzian is literary editor for the Weekly Standard, where he graciously and occasionally publishes my reviews.)
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
R. EMMETT TYRRELL, JR.
This past year I was kept very busy editing The American Spectator and writing a book, After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Victory, which came out this past April. In that book I predicted our victory this fall and explained how things are going to get even more difficult for the liberals in the years to come. Interestingly, after the election my telephone never rang. None of the television or radio shows devoted to explaining the election ever called. Needless to say, no calls from academe. I bet that was not true of James Carville, who wrote in 2009 the delightful volume of poetry, 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation (Simon & Schuster). Even Sam Tanenhaus was more in demand than I and he wrote the stupefyingly imbecilic The Death of Conservatism (Random House). They and David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, Paul Krugman, Stuart Rothenberg, and that ultimate source of garbagespiel, David Frum, go from weakness to weakness. It never endangers their reputation with the Ruling Class whatsoever. Alas, I did get to play a lot of handball and I can say I am as good as ever.
I did read a book outside the line of duty, Solar (Nan A. Talese), by Ian McEwan. In it he satirizes the environmental movement, with especial attention to the Nobel Prize. I note that McEwan was given a general drubbing by the critics, especially here in the land of the free and the home of the regimented intellectualoids. Get the book. You will enjoy it immensely.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., is editor in chief of The American Spectator.
G. K. Chesterton’s timeless Orthodoxy contrasts the “thrilling romance” of Christian orthodoxy with the dreary materialism of modernity. Here’s his description of the awakening that led to his conversion:
It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection — the world and the Christian tradition. I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world — it had evidently been meant to go there — and then the strange thing began to happen. When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.
Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.