This article appears in The American Spectator‘s new December/January issue. To subscribe, please click here.
Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
Roughing It by Mark Twain: Having worked as a “buckaroo” near Winnemucca, Nevada, I find this to be one of my all time favorite books and a true classic. It relates the adventurous story of life moving west in the boomtown days of Virginia City, Nevada. Sometimes I pick it up just to read a chapter or two, and over the decades I have always enjoyed the descriptions of colorful characters, animals, and lands that remind me of the unlimited potential and spirit of Nevada.
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose: This is the great story of the Lewis and Clark expedition and their challenges exploring the Louisiana Territory. Not only do I like the connection to Virginia and Thomas Jefferson, but I also enjoyed Ambrose’s retelling of the story of these courageous men living by their resourcefulness in wild and uncharted lands. Lewis and Clark’s story has lessons for all of us in the world today. Sometimes as I sit through hours and hours of endless meetings in Washington where senators think they are working hard, I think of real hard work and the determination of the Corps of Discovery as their findings opened new opportunities for our young nation. We must always be a country limited only by our diligence and imagination. Every new generation should have the spirit of the Corps of Discovery.
When Character Was King by Peggy Noonan: A great book about a great man by one of the most eloquent writers of our time. I always enjoy reading about my political hero, Ronald Reagan, especially when the stories come from the unrivaled pen of Ms. Noonan. This book is filled with wonderful anecdotes and stirring tales about the life of the man who was, in my view, the greatest leader of the 20th century.
The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman: Essential reading for anyone who is concerned about America’s place in the competitive world marketplace. While I don’t agree with every surmise in this book, Mr. Friedman pulls together an impressive array of facts and figures on the fast-changing global economy and its effects. It’s further evidence that American business and government leaders need to redouble our efforts to innovate, adapt, and improve if we are to compete and succeed in the future.
Strategies for Winning by Coach George Allen: I know some will say I am biased, but this book is one of the best collections of admonitions and advice for success on the football field and in life. If anyone ever wants to know what it was like being one of Coach George Allen’s players or growing up as one of his children, this is the book to read to find out. As my father would say, “The future is now!”
Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen R. Covey: The old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” adorns the cover of Covey’s book, which teaches the importance of applying principles throughout one’s life. I find this approach essential to leadership. I enjoyed Covey’s thoughtful book on the value of standing by principle. It was a most helpful book for me running for and serving as Governor of Virginia.
George Allen is a former governor from Virginia and currently serves as a United States Senator from the Commonwealth.
You can never go wrong with Thomas Sowell, the great public intellectual at the Hoover Institution. He turns out a book a year so there’s a lot to choose from. I’d read eight or nine of them on subjects as varied as ethnic groups, immigration, Marxism, and late-talking children. Then to get ready for an interview with Sowell for a Fox News special on him, I read five more over the summer. My favorite was The Vision of the Anointed, first published in 1995. It’s a brilliant skewering of liberalism and all its deceits and pretensions. Liberals — the anointed — are better than you and I. They’re morally superior and never have to buttress their opinions with anything as mundane as evidence. They simply know better and nothing is ever their fault. “Problems exist because others are not as wise or as virtuous as the anointed,” Sowell writes. I’d say read this if you’re only going to read one Sowell book. But if you read it, you’re certain to read more Sowell.
I also stumbled onto Pursuit of Justices: Presidential Politics and the Selection of Supreme Court Nominees by David Alistair Yalof of the University of Connecticut. It’s an extremely well-reported and enthralling account of how presidents from Truman to Clinton picked justices. Why did Eisenhower choose Earl Warren for chief justice? He felt sorry for Warren after passing him up for a Cabinet post and promised him the first Supreme Court vacancy as consolation. Ike was shocked when that turned out to be chief justice. But he kept his promise.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, a Fox News commentator, and author of a book about President Bush, Rebel-in-Chief, to be published in January.
Patricia Buckley Bozell
Sink happily into Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts and some of the best prose of the 20th century. It includes T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, Edith Sitwell, Roy Campbell, Dorothy Sayers…. Himself a master of the art, Pearce probes the religious journeys of these great men and women. The temptation is to take the book in one gulp. Don’t.
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time blasts the age-old myth that Richard III is evil personified. A short explosive book, every chapter unravels a mystery and rights a terrible wrong.
Patricia Buckley Bozell resides in Washington, D.C.
Priscilla L. Buckley
The most fascinating book I’ve read all year is April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik. Both masterfully researched and masterly written.
The most provocative was Futuring: The Exploration of the Future by Edward Cornish, editor of The Futurist magazine, and, I am happy to say, a former buddy of mine at United Press in Paris in the mid-1950s. It causes you to think about what’s ahead for us all in a new and different way.
Priscilla L. Buckley is the former managing editor of National Review and the author of Living It Up With National Review: A Memoir.
Right now I am amazed by the works of Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian and Suttree, which have the verbal complexity of poetry and are such a tactile reading experience that on reaching the last page of Blood Meridian I simply started again.
The best novel of the last decade is A Fine Balance, a Dickensian story of poverty in India, by Rohinton Mistry.
Another great novel about India is Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, which must be included among the books of a lifetime.
Of course, I keep something by Balzac and Simenon on standby at all times.
Roger Ebert is a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Ebert and Roeper.
John S. Gardner
India has over a billion people, and the country is arguably America’s best friend among the rising powers of the developing world. Knowing that others will cover the more obvious suggestions in American and European history, I propose several books to increase one’s knowledge of this fascinating country.
India: A History by John Keay: The best recent single volume history, a delight to read, by a noted British scholar who writes history the old-fashioned way.
Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God by Jonah Blank: Each chapter in this book, by a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (but don’t hold that against him), begins by retelling a portion of the Ramayana epic followed by relevant and illuminating stories from his travels through modern India. A unique concept and a great way to appreciate the Ramayana, an epic that has influenced mythology and storytelling all over the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia for over 2000 years.
The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri: Some Indians will not be pleased at the inclusion of this work by an exile who could be harshly critical of his native land. But the author ranks with Conrad as among the finest prose stylists writing in English as an adoptive language and the recounting of his youth of a century ago will leave a vivid impression. His second volume, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, continues the story through Partition in 1947.
On the neighboring region of Central Asia, I recommend Tournament of Shadows, by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. It tells the history of the “Great Game,” the long struggle between the British, Russians, and others for mastery of the region commanding the approaches to India. This is a book for winter and for firesides. It will entertain you in the reading while adding depth to your understanding of today’s news.
John S. Gardner served as general counsel of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2005. He has also served as a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.
State of Fear by Michael Crichton: A James Bond-like thriller in which the politically correct Friends of the Earth are the Dr. No-like bad guys. Crichton’s tome serves as a good antidote to the religion of global warming and the junk science that feeds it.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: A super-secret effort by various medieval secret societies to unmask a grand conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up alleged fact that Mary Magdalen was the wife of Jesus and co-founder of the Church by waging a 2000-year public relations campaign portraying her as an easy woman, unraveled by brilliant Harvard professor of symbology.
The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto: Capitalism only works in countries where independent judiciary, uncorrupted government bureaucracy, and transparent indicia of ownership enforce private property rights. He explains, perhaps unintentionally, why dumping money in Third World countries is mostly a useless endeavor. Take note, Bono.
Tom Knott is a metro and sports columnist for the Washington Times.
Comedy is hard. But former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman’s book, It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America, reminds one of Woody Allen’s early New Yorker essays. She calls herself an economic conservative but winks at us with the fact that she bumped New Jersey state spending from $14.6 billion to $20 billion in her seven years in office and increased state debt from $3 billion to $12 billion. Classic Steve Martin irony. She then goes on to suggest that her governing style of bigger government and social liberalism is the model for the Reagan/ Bush Republican Party in other states. When Whitman was elected, New Jersey had the governorship and two-thirds majorities in the House and Assembly. When she left, the Democrats had the governorship and majorities in both houses of the legislature. Mark Twain couldn’t have written it better. Whitman’s career in politics is over, but she has great comedic talent.
Two Topical Books on Property Rights: The Supreme Court’s Kelo decision — upholding the power of local governments to take your house and give it to Starbucks — has energized the far-flung but heretofore under-organized property rights movement. But great movements need manifestos, and the property rights movement has two.
First, Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph documents the power of property rights to shape nations and history. (Someday I hope to watch a debate between Tom Bethell, arguing the primacy of property rights, and a disciple of the late Jude Wanniski whose The Way the World Works argued everything flowed from low tax rates.)
The second seminal work on property rights is Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital, and it demonstrates how property rights — not foreign aid or even democracy — is what the Third World needs to develop. De Soto gives a great history of the development of property rights in the United States, reminding us that we too didn’t get it right at first.
Getting Through the Boring Days Ahead with Murder Mysteries: Like football fans after the Super Bowl, those who follow American politics will have a lot of downtime in the next three years. Gerrymandered House seats and state borders guarantee Republican majorities, but not the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass anything fatal to the Democrat coalition. So there is plenty of time to read murder mysteries. And if you read historically based murder mysteries, it seems more grown-up and serious. Here are some of the best available.
First, for viewers of the new HBO miniseries Rome — a cross between Sex and the City and The Sopranos with togas and swords — there are two series of detective novels based in the period from the collapsing Roman Republic to Augustus’s empire. Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series has seven novels and two books of short stories starring the Sherlock Holmes of his day, Gordianus the Finder. His most recent is a collection of short stories, A Gladiator Dies Only Once. John Maxwell Roberts’ SPQR series has six novels featuring Decius Metellus as the detective.
Underpaid European history professors have created an entire industry of murder mysteries set in the Middle Ages. Most well known are the 20-plus Brother Cadfael novels written by Ellis Peters. Circa 1100 A.D., Brother Cadfael is a Welshman and a former soldier and adventurer, but now a monk with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples’ knack for finding murder and mayhem in the countryside. Writing about the Ireland of 600 a.d., Peter Tremayne has penned at least six novels featuring the lawyer Sister Fidelma and her “friend” the Saxon monk, Eadulf. Leaping ahead to the 11th century, Edward Marston has written eleven Domesday Books featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret’s adventures. Candace Robb has seven Owen Archer mysteries, set c. 1370. Paul Doherty has two protagonists: Hugh Corbett of Medieval Mysteries and The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, spanning post-1066 England. Doherty also has four books based in Ancient Egypt. These ought to keep you busy until we have enough senators to privatize Social Security.
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Theodore B. Olson
My FBI by Louis J. Freeh: Honest, tough, and straight reporting from a man who just couldn’t be corrupted by his service for eight years inside the Clinton administration as director of the FBI. Freeh had been an FBI agent, United States attorney, and federal judge before taking on the FBI job. Brilliant, strong, uncompromising. Just what the Clinton presidency feared most. With the integrity and the tenacity not to be seduced, undermined, or driven away until it was safe to hand the FBI over to a president who valued the rule of law as much as he did.
Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill: A moving and revealing biography of a man who has inspired generations of songwriters and musicians; a short and tragic life of a genius of music, poetry, and emotion, whose words and music will never die. Listen to Lucinda Williams singing “Cold, Cold Heart” and you will be haunted by Hank Williams forever.
Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens: A short, brilliant, and insightful rendition of the life of Thomas Jefferson by one of the most captivating writers and keenest observers of life and politics alive today.
Theodore B. Olson is the former solicitor general of the United States.
Alfred S. Regnery
You cannot really understand the 20th century without reading Witness by Whittaker Chambers. It certainly isn’t a new book, but it is timeless. Not only is it beautifully written and superb literature, not only is it a great spy story, but it portrays the ultimate confrontation between good and evil, between oppression and freedom, and between Western civilization and Communism. When you are done reading it, give it to your children. And if you want even more about the greatest spy case, read Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars, by University of Virginia law professor G. Edward White, newly out in paperback. Why, White asks, did Hiss, an intelligent and well-educated man, spend 40 years lying about his past, dragging his family, friends, old colleagues, and, in a sense, the whole left-wing establishment into that lie, when it would have been so easy for him to admit that he was a spy when caught and then go on with the rest of his life? Good question.
I probably don’t need to tell Spectator readers to stay away from Jimmy Carter’s latest, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (unless you want to help us find Current Wisdom), but I will anyway; it is our worst president’s check list of everything that is wrong with America, most of which comes from everybody to the right of, well, Jimmy. For a little inspiration, read No Excuses by Kyle Maynard, born with no arms below the elbow, no legs below the knee, but unstoppable in everything he does, from wrestling, football, studies, and just living his life. No more feeling sorry for yourself after reading Kyle.
Alfred S. Regnery is publisher of The American Spectator.
William E. Simon, Jr.
Making It Perfectly Clear: An Inside Account of Nixon’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Media by Herb Klein: This is a thoughtful and thorough recollection of a tumultuous public career as seen through the insightful eyes of President Nixon’s director of communications. As a longtime associate of the president, Mr. Klein was often in the unique, if not impossible, position between two distrustful counterparties. Klein gives a balanced and unemotional portrait of that awkward situation.
You Are the Message by Roger Ailes: As a student of communications, I have read many books on this well-covered subject. By far and away my favorite book on the art of communications is by Roger Ailes, the present head of Fox News, with the help of his former partner Jon Kraushar. This hard-hitting blunt description of the vocal art, perhaps the world’s third oldest profession, will help anyone interested in improving their presentation skills.
The Inner Voice by Renee Fleming: This autobiography by Renee Fleming charts her inspirational rise as a nationally respected singer for the New York Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Fleming’s devotion to her craft is painstakingly detailed in this eminently readable volume, which offers a delightful tour of singing lessons, voice exercises, insecurities, and triumph. Interspersed liberally are helpful comments to would-be singers and communicators.
Halftime by Bob Buford: An interesting, provocative treatment of the traditional mid-life crisis. Couched in a challenge — how to go from “success to significance” — the author, Bob Buford, charts his own passage into the second half of his life by discussing the locker room analysis of what he went through. In addition, Buford provides a helpful road map to personal goals after the cheering has stopped.
William E. Simon, Jr., a businessman, philanthropist, and former federal prosecutor, was the 2002 Republican candidate for governor of California.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
This has been a very good year for Churchill books. My favorite, Churchill and America by Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, chronicles Churchill’s profound interest in America, from his earliest days reading books his American mother gave him about American history to his last years when the aged Prime Minister talked so frequently of the Anglo-American “special relationship” and even of possible Union between the two peoples. A close runner-up is In Command of History by David Reynolds. Being possibly the longest book review in world history, through 656 pages it reports on how Churchill wrote his war memoirs. It does much more. It depicts the Great Man writing, traveling, regaining his political power, and launching himself into the Cold War. It is a book about Churchill in World War II, the Cold War, and the world of scholarship. When you finish these books Churchill will have come alive before your eyes. Since reading them I have not been able to quite shake the old boy, and I wish he would stop chewing that old burnt-out cigar and light up a new one.
And this just in: as this issue was going to bed I received a copy of Steven Hayward’s new book, Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. I picked it up mired in dubiety. Similarities between this son of an American dustyfoot and the son of the son of an English Duke? Come, come, Professor Hayward! But the prof has pulled it off and given us a meditation on political greatness complete with amusing anecdotes.
Another fine book is What Women Really Want by Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway. These are two women who through polling and political consultancies know the deepest trends in the country. In this very intelligent book they make bold to tell us where the modern woman is going — not where the feminists used to think. Finally, as things heat up in Washington on the tax reform front, our clever friend Steve Forbes comes out with Flat Tax Revolution. In it he demonstrates how a 17 percent flat tax will enrich the United States Treasury and let the taxpayer off in terms of time spent filing, taxes paid, privacy, and more. Read this book and you will see why there will always be a Forbes magazine telling us how to make and save money.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.
Le Requin et la Mouette (The Shark and the Seagull), by Dominique de Villepin: It is worth learning French to read this extra- ordinarily vainglorious guff from France’s prime minister. Sample — “After the first globalization dominated by Spain at the time of the Renaissance, and after the second, launched by the Industrial Revolution and dominated by the Anglo-Saxons, cannot one wager that the third globalization, that of identities, of cultures and of symbols, will bring a new spirit to French ambition?”
French Negotiating Behavior: Dealing With La Grande Nation by Charles Cogan: The former head of the CIA Paris station offers a politely deflating counter.
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt: A magisterial history of modern Europe by a British social democrat who understands that the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973 represented the moment when “the Master Narrative of the twentieth century… [and] its core assumptions began to erode and crumble.”
The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations? by Tony Blankley: The editor of the Washington Times op-ed page issues a powerful and well-timed warning that if the growing power of Islam turns Europe into Eurabia, “it would be a condition Americans should dread and should move mountains to avoid.”
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday: A magnificent and devastating account of the monster who set back the rise of China by half a century.
Martin Walker is editor in chief of United Press International.
This article appears in The American Spectator‘s December/January issue. To subscribe, please click here.