From The American Spectator‘s December 2007-January 2008 issue: Part II of our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is famous for minding his own business, both during the years he was creating literary bombshells inside the Soviet Union as well as during his 18 years of exile in the United States. Since his return to Russia in 1994, the man whose pen proved mightier than the Soviet Union has done what he has always done, concentrated on his work and fended off intruders. Legions of would-be interviewers, especially those from the West, failed to gain access, no matter how impeccable their credentials. But a few years after his return home, the Nobel prizewinner opened his doors to Joseph Pearce, an Englishman whose previous works included biographies of G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. The result of the interviews, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, shows the Russian icon chose his man wisely. Pearce’s passion is Solzhenitsyn’s passion, what the Russian has described as the “universal and eternal questions.” In addition to the insights he provides into Solzhenitsyn’s work, Pearce, an agnostic turned Catholic, asks questions that secular interviewers are more comfortable avoiding (if they occur to them at all) and Solzhenitsyn answers.
Having whetted the appetite with Pearce’s book, the thoughtful giver would naturally want to include a book by the master himself. But there are so many. What is a busy Christmas shopper to do? Answer: The recently published The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005. In one splendid volume, Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney have collected selections from Solzhenitsyn’s poems, short stories, memoirs (The Oak and the Calf), novels (The First Circle and Cancer Ward), and other works, such as the earthshaking Gulag Archipelago. Also included are many of his essays and speeches, some famous (including his Nobel acceptance speech) and others little known, such as one he gave in Liechtenstein in 1993 in which he paid tribute to the tiny country’s World War II leader, Prince Franz Joseph II, for providing what Solzhenitsyn called a “lesson in courage.” At the end of the war British and American officials agreed with Stalin to repatriate hundreds of thousands of anti-Communist Russians, Ukrainians, and other Soviet-bloc refugees who wrongly believed they had found safety in the West. But Franz Joseph refused to comply, thereby saving the detachment of Russian anti-Communists in his country from what awaited hundreds of thousands of others on their forced return to the Soviet Union: outright execution or slow death in a concentration camp. At the time of Solzhenitsyn’s speech close to 50 years had elapsed since the repatriations. But he remembered and paid homage. That this towering figure, 89 this month, is still among us is another reason for joy this Christmas.
And what will the children do while the adults are immersed in Solzhenitsyn? The ones Santa really likes will be savoring The Saga of Erik the Viking, the spellbinding story of a brave Viking who sets off with his brave crew to find where the sun goes at night. They find it, but what heart-stopping adventures they have on the way, facing the evilly seductive Old Man of the Sea, the terrifying Dogfighters, and the wicked Enchantress of the Fjord, to name just a few. Author Terry Jones is probably best known as a member of Monty Python, but in a better world he would be more renowned for his children’s stories, especially The Saga of Erik the Viking. The book is best in hardcover because that version does more justice to the spectacular illustrations of Michael Foreman. Warning: Several years after Erik was published, Jones wrote and directed a dreadful movie called Erik the Viking that was aimed at an older audience. It failed miserably, while the book is an utter triumph.
Kevin Lynch, former articles editor of National Review, lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Heather Mac Donald
If you live for classical music, you must not die before reading Hector Berlioz’s Memoirs. (The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns; Everyman’s Library, 2002.) They are a thrilling expression of artistic passion and a fascinating chronicle of 19th-century European musical life. Not wild about Berlioz’s music? It doesn’t matter. Berlioz’s gifts as a prose stylist are so endearing as to make one’s opinion of his musical voice irrelevant. Had he never written a note, this book would have earned him a place among Europe’s great Romantic spirits.
Rarely has the experience of great art been more eloquently conveyed. On first hearing Shakespeare, for example: “The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. I saw, I understood, I felt… that I was alive and that I must arise and walk.”
Such joyous enthusiasms — for Beethoven, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and others — make the Memoirs a delight to read. But their most unexpected effect is to reveal that we are living today in the golden age of performance — despite the death of classical-music composition — thanks to reforms championed by Berlioz himself. Berlioz fought relentlessly against the shameless mauling of scores by publishers, conductors, and performers. His lacerating description of the “fixes” imposed on The Magic Flute is hilarious — but also terrifying. We, too, might never have heard Mozart’s genius uncorrupted had publishers and performers continued the desecrations that Berlioz so decried.
Equally revelatory are his witty accounts of his conducting tours through Europe. While Berlioz met musicians of the highest artistry (especially in Germany), he also found mediocrity and unprofessionalism that today would be unthinkable in even provincial orchestras. He advises conductors to learn to read scores, and composers and conductors to learn the range of each instrument — skills that are now routine, thanks, again, in part to Berlioz’s influence.
It is fascinating to see how much the musical canon has changed — few today know the operas of Gaspare Spontini, whom Berlioz ranked uncontroversially in a triumvirate of great modern masters, along with Beethoven… and Weber! But what has not changed is the ecstasy produced by great music. This book expresses that ecstasy with unparalleled power.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.
None of the books consumed by this reader in 2007 was as powerful or eye-opening as Dominika Dery’s childhood memoir, The Twelve Little Cakes. She provides a first-hand account of growing up under a Communist regime that even the sympathetic Ronald Reagan couldn’t come close to describe when he set out to tear down the wall. One reviewer noted that the book reads almost like a fairy tale, “replete with a menacing dragon of sorts,” except in this case the dragon is the Communist fist that controlled Prague during the 1970s and 1980s.
Making matters worse for Dominika and her struggling parents was the fact that the child’s grandparents did not only support the Communist regime, they were its top lieutenants and enforcers — even when it meant confronting family. By far the most emotionally gripping scene of many is when Dominika comes face-to-face with her grandfather, a renowned Czech surgeon, which in itself would have ripped apart the Iron Curtain had it somehow played out for all the world to see three decades ago.
Amazingly, Dominika was born in Prague in 1975, the same year Tiger Woods was born.
John McCaslin is the Washington Times‘s “Inside the Beltway” columnist and author of Inside the Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans From Around the Nation’s Capital.
Grover G. Norquist
Americans are blessed with short and shallow political memories — unlike, say, the Serbs and the Albanians. But this has its downsides, as a handful of self-appointed “historians” have been allowed to create our memories. Arthur Schlesinger’s 1949 The Vital Center explained the Depression and the New Deal. Later, his 1965 A Thousand Days congealed the myth of Camelot.
The antidote to these two myths, central to the power of the modern Democrat party, is only now at hand.
The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes will forever change how America understands the causes of the Depression and FDR’s policies that prolonged it for a decade. The title alone is worth the price of admission: FDR used the phrase to suggest the average American had been forgotten by the government that should take control of his life to “help” him. He stole the phrase from Yale philosopher William Graham Sumner, who first used it to describe the person forgotten when the government plays philanthropist or social reformer — the taxpayer forced to pay the bill.
It was not until the 1980s that conservative book writers rallied in time to accurately portray a decade, in this case the times and presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Martin Anderson’s 1988 Revolution, Bruce Bartlett’s 1983 The Supply-Side Solution, and Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson’s 2001 Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America put the nail in the coffin on the efforts of the left to claim Reagan was “sleepwalking through history” as “an amiable dunce.” Peter Schweizer’s definitive work, Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of Soviet Union, outlined how Reagan deliberately set about destroying the Soviet Empire.
Conservatives understandably focus on criticizing government for doing poorly what it ought not to do at all: running health care or playing philanthropist with other people’s money. But there are some things a constitutional republic should do. A new book highlighting the damage done by one spy, Jonathan Pollard, reminds us that we would do well to focus as much on getting government to do its limited legitimate functions well (the ones mentioned in the Constitution) as we do trying to cull back the sprawling and destructive, metastasized powers of the State.
Special Agent Ronald J. Olive was the counterintelligence officer who broke the case and has now written the sadly true story, Capturing Jonathan Pollard. (The book had a chilling resonance for this writer as Pollard was a drinking buddy.) Pollard should have been fired several times and was instead awarded security clearances despite every warning that he was not stable. It is truly frightening how this flawed character got into a position in Naval Intelligence to sift through our nation’s most sensitive secrets — in departments and agencies across the government — and cart them out to be photocopied by Israeli government agents. In 18 months, Pollard, aided by his wife, carried out and gave Israel enough stolen material that would stand six feet by six feet by ten feet solid — more than one million pages of secrets. (While the Israelis got most of the goodies, he gave or sold classified material to more than a dozen foreign individuals or countries.)
Pollard was caught by a fluke when a concerned fellow worker saw him walk out of the office with classified documents that were never to leave the building and he reluctantly reported this to his superiors. Once alerted, counter intelligence worked well and quickly and Pollard is serving a well-deserved life sentence. But where were they on the front end? If the government weren’t busy running a national Endowment for the Arts, it might be able to focus on keeping our nation’s secrets and capturing spies earlier in their careers.
Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the forthcoming book Leave Us Alone (HarperCollins).
These Christmas Book recommendations appear in the December 2007-January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. Part III of this year’s recommendations will appear tomorrow. To read yesterday’s Part I, click
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