The Best Reads of 2019: A Holiday Symposium
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’Tis the season to celebrate great writing. The year-end books special is a long-standing tradition at The American Spectator — and it’s our gift to you.

Enjoy, and let us know what books are at the top of your wish list and under your Christmas tree.

*****

Wlady Pleszczynski: Last Christmas, to make sure I received a gift I really wanted, I ordered a copy of revered, late-blooming biographer Claire Tomalin’s biography of herself, A Life of My Own.

Claire Tomalin A Life of My Own cover

And it really did turn out to be a book I read cover to cover. It helped it’s only 326 pages, in a tasteful format and font. Fit the subject perfectly, one of those phenomenal British men/women of letters who I can’t imagine has ever written a clumsy sentence in her adult life and whose command of English is no doubt unrivaled. (Not bad for someone who is half-French, on her father’s side.) She had a handsome, charming, wayward husband who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, meaning she raised their five children mainly by herself, without a hint of modern complaint, though one son was badly handicapped (he may be her pride and joy) and a daughter succumbed to depression (a cross that can’t be lifted). Tomalin worked in literary journalism, at the New Statesman and the Times of London, before becoming Britain’s perhaps most distinguished biographer. Where would civilization be without her likes?

Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator.

*****

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: For one of the greatest historical minds practicing Herodotus’ art today, Amity Shlaes begins Great Society: A New History with an ingénue’s sense of wonder. At the threshold of her demolition of the Great Society, she notes that a gang of energetic people — mostly men — devised reforms for all aspects of American life, and that “the reforms sounded great.” The reformers had huge mounds of money at hand and huge ambitions to go along with their substantial egos. For decades they ran riot over America: “The ‘New Frontier’ of Kennedy became Johnson’s ‘Great Society,’ which became the ‘Great Nation,’ and then the ‘Just and Abundant Society’ of Richard Nixon.” All were government-designed and directed projects for improving our lives and even the lives of our household pets. The result is trillions of dollars spent on problems that still perplex us and the creation of new problems that the government is incapable of eradicating.

Shlaes explains where the reforms went wrong, and she does it with an ever-evanescing sense of wonder. In the end, she leaves us to deduce how to improve on the mess that the reformers have made of our constitutional setup.

Amity Schlaes Great Society cover

And this just in: Charles Moore’s third volume of his monumental life of Margaret Thatcher. The former editor of the London Spectator has written Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone just in time for the winter holidays. I have yet to read it, but from Britain comes word that it is every bit a good as the first two volumes. If the reviewers are right, that makes Moore one of the great biographers of his generation, writing on one of the greatest British figures of all.

I am going to raise a glass of champagne to both books.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.

*****

David Catron: At the end of last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren solemnly informed the audience, “This is a dark moment in America.” If you or anyone you know can read that claim without laughing aloud or doing a facepalm, I recommend Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West. Shapiro is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and one of the nation’s most requested campus speakers. His book’s thesis is laid out in unambiguous terms in its introduction: “This book is about two mysteries. The first mystery: Why are things so good? The second mystery: Why are we blowing it?”

Ben Shapiro Right Side of History

Shapiro’s solution to the first conundrum is that our society is built on a foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics and Greek reason, the combination of which led to the freest, most prosperous era in world history. His answer to the second question involves widespread ignorance of this fact and the failure of our institutions to transmit it to each new generation. He quotes Ronald Reagan to drive home the point: 

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.

Shapiro takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Western civilization to point out that reason alone cannot shape ethics and the claim that it can betrays an unacknowledged belief in Judeo-Christian values. Societies that suppress the latter produce genocidal regimes like Soviet Russia and Maoist China. Societies that suppress reason produce oppressive theocracies like Iran. Those regimes epitomize the meaning of “dark moments.” Shapiro wraps it all up with a call to recapture the western tradition and push it forward. The Right Side of History is a serious book and an eminently enjoyable read. 

David Catron is a recovering health-care consultant and frequent contributor to The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter at @Catronicus.

*****

Paul Kengor: Among 2019’s new books, these four stood out to me.

Carrie Gress’ The Anti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity may be the most unique and interesting book of the year. Published by TAN Books, Dr. Gress offers a fascinating insight into the destructive effects of “toxic femininity.” The behavior and efforts of so many radical feminists have created a nasty new vision of woman that is the antithesis of femininity. For a true model of what a woman should aspire to be, Gress points to the greatest woman in the history of humanity: the Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Mother of Christ.

Anti-Mary Exposed Carrie Gress

Invoking the language of “Anti-Christ,” Gress argues that what we’re witnessing in American culture today (and the West generally) is an assault by the “Anti-Mary.” It’s a keen and bold insight. Gress’ book is illuminating and inspiring, shocking and depressing. Certain chapters are downright painful to read as Gress exposes “The Long Battle” of forces such as modern “goddess worship,” the “Anti-Marian Architects,” and “The New Matriarchy: Fashionable Dictators.” Several times I had to stop reading — so ugly and dark and depraved are the cases shared. To say that the examples highlighted by Gress are un-feminine is insufficient. Many of the cases are vile, sickening, agonizing to read. Nonetheless, this ogre needs to be exposed. Gress exposes and then concludes by offering to “the Walking Wounded” the example of “Mary, the Antidote,” truly the best and ideal example of authentic beauty and womanhood in a culture gone barking mad.

Buy copies of this book for every woman in your life, and for a few men as well. In fact, buy a dozen and mail them to the Feminist Studies Department at the nearest university.

Mark Levin’s Unfreedom of the Press is probably the most important book of the year in calling out what Levin dubs “The Modern Democratic-Party Press.” That partisan press, unleashed in a particularly ferocious way in seeking Donald Trump’s head on a platter, has been out of control for many years. Levin traces that history expertly, right up to modern times. (For a full review, see my post at the Institute for Faith & Freedom website.)

Tim Goeglein and Craig Osten’s American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation did not get the attention it merited in 2019. Goeglein and Osten have produced a thoughtful work on the problems plaguing our nation while also identifying the virtues to make our culture good again. Books of this genre are often trite. This one is not. This intelligent look at the challenges facing the nation integrates the thinking of figures from Aquinas to Chesterton, Russell Kirk to Edmund Burke, Clarence Thomas to Alexis de Tocqueville, Mary Eberstadt to Daniel Dreisbach.

The Church and the Roman Empire (301–490): Constantine, Councils, and the Fall of Rome is the latest from Mike Aquilina, a well-known Catholic writer. This book examines an era critically important to Christianity but largely unknown and misunderstood by numerous Christians and non-Christians alike. It deals with an ancient world, but the topic of Church and state remains as relevant as ever. Well written and accessible, this book would be especially useful to homeschoolers.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College and a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.

*****

Hannah Niemeier: Why read a book about a popular musician when you can just listen to her music instead? Well, for one, you get to read with a built-in soundtrack. For two, you can put a name to the ear-worms. Debbie Harry’s Face It did that for me. It’s a story about what it’s like being such an iconic front-woman that your name gets conflated with your band’s — no, Harry’s name isn’t Blondie, though I’m not the only one who spent years calling her that. The creator of “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another,” and “Call Me” is coquettish yet fearless as ever in her photo-and-fan-art-studded memoir, showing and telling how she not only survived the sex, drugs, and punk atmosphere of the ’70s New Wave scene, but became the face of it. You play up your image for the cameras and the crowds — you play the game — but you don’t let it get to you.

Debbie Harry Face It cover

Harry isn’t the only leading legend to come out with a memoir this year. Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey is less about music and more about the loss of it as she says goodbye to her friends, especially Sam Shepard and Sandy Pearlman from Blue Öyster Cult and the Clash. I could go on: Liz Phair’s Horror Stories, Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, Elton John’s aptly titled Me … autobiography is such a revealing form. Check out a musician’s memoir this Christmas to hear a long-familiar voice in another timbre.

Hannah Niemeier is an editorial associate at The American Spectator.

*****

Jeremy Lott: Let’s say you want someone to read a funny novel that you like. One comparison you might reach for is, “It reads like a Babylon Bee article.” For those who don’t know, the Bee is a satirical newspaper. It’s the Christian answer to the Onion, but it’s much funnier. Most of the funny novels you would liken to a Bee satirical “news” story will not live up to the hype.

Frank J. Fleming Hellbender cover

Frank J. Fleming writes many of those stories in the Bee. He also writes funny novels with heart, the latest of which is Hellbender. It’s a comedy set inside a future dystopia. Four war orphans, or “warfs,” were placed in a shared apartment by a government that had do something with them. Every regime that comes into contact with this quartet ends up regretting it. Here is Bryce, the charmer, being interrogated:

“We can control reality and your very thoughts, for our authority is over all. What is two plus two?”

Bryce thought for a moment. “Five.”

“Wrong! It’s … ” There was a pause. “Wait; did you just say five?”

“Well, yeah.” Bryce straightened his suit. “You see, I’ve done this before, so I started pre- brainwashing myself while I was waiting.”

Jeremy Lott is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.

*****

Evan Maguire: Books that can encompass both relatable stories and historical realities are few and far between. Jim Howe’s Red Crew: Fighting the War on Drugs with Reagan’s Coast Guard manages to do just that.

Red Crew is a personal narrative, interspersed with historical information, of a Coast Guard officer during the early years of the “Drug War” in the 1980s. Howe writes about “Red Crew,” one of the rotations on a new class of Surface Effect Ships tasked with patrolling the Caribbean for drug traffickers. Howe’s chronology includes numerous stories of drug raids, vessel rescues, and migrant interdictions. Any one of these stories could be a book in itself, but here they are are tightly connected through a continuous narrative.  

Red Crew Jim Howe cover

Most Americans probably don’t realize just how crucial the Coast Guard is to the safety of citizens, and Red Crew offers a glimpse into the role that it plays. Howe describes the bravery, ingenuity, and service of Coast Guard’s men and women in the face of adversity, from a standoff with the Mexican navy to searches for hidden drug compartments.

The book is prescient and touches on issues that the United States is struggling with today. While reading about Caribbean drug smuggling and the Haitian migrant crisis, I could not help but think of today’s cartel-led drug crisis and the Central American migrant crisis. While the book doesn’t make any comparison, perhaps there are lessons from the not-so-distant 1980s that would help the country deal with our issues today.

While offering real stories, the book reads like an action novel with a cast of relatable and genuine characters. Red Crew is a perfect book for amateur historians, public policy wonks, and the nautically inclined.

Evan Maguire is The American Spectator’s development manager.

*****

John C. Wohlstetter: Scholar David Goldman gave a talk on China (27:12) in November challenging the 30-year “constructive engagement” strategy pursued by both parties since the June 4, 1989, massacre of protesters — enamored of Thomas Jefferson, not Confucius — in Tiananmen Square.

The conventional wisdom held that China would become freer politically as it became wealthier and more productive economically. To be fair, 1989 was a true annus mirabilis for the West, with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Europe, and the overthrow of Rumanian tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu. As dictators fell, democracy seemed inexorably on the march. Alas, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wintry Arab Spring put paid to those dreams.

The dominant power on the planet for 18 of the first 20 centuries A.D., China seeks to regain its perch. Its 5,000 years of mandarin governance, epic pilfering of critical technology, sufficient economic power to sustain its advance, and ability to manipulate useful-idiot elites who think the Chinese people virtuous augur winner-take-all success. In reality, the Chinese are 1.4 billion little emperors whose mandarins are Mafia capo di tutti capi, holding myriad ethnic blocs together by force and the promise of potential meritocratic rise for all. Mao’s fabled Long March hoodwinked the West into backing Maoism; the new Long March gulls the West to support neo-Mafiosi.

A deeply divided West must unite to meet this grand challenge. Goldman says we can do it. Good luck.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2nd edition 2014).

*****

Matthew Omolesky: Over the course of nine books, beginning with the magisterial The Ruin of Kasch (1983), the Italian “literary institution of one” Roberto Calasso has been formulating a grand theory of history, encompassing everything from the Ṛgveda to Kafka, and from Tiepolo to Talleyrand. In his 2017 The Unnamable Present, which appeared in an English translation by Richard Dixon this year, Calasso at last reaches the present day, this “age of the insubstantial” bequeathed to us by the “partially successful attempt at self-destruction” humanity experienced between 1933 and 1945.

Unnamable Present Roberto Calasso cover

The Unnamable Present is at its heart an ethnographic study of Homo saecularis, that devotee of the religion of society, who “owes nothing to anyone” (apart perhaps from taxes), who “is not bound to follow precepts,” who “stands by himself” and “has nothing behind, apart from what he himself does.” The slackening of age-old obligations, Calasso observes, has produced nothing but puzzlement, confusion, ephemeral enthusiasm, and depression. The members of the species Homo saecularis “feel the insubstantiality of all that surrounds them,” and even “recognize something ominous in it.” As a palliative measure they “become caught up in causes, whether good or bad,” and take up novel “prescribed rules and fashions,” though “nothing in them is directed at anything external to society itself.” As Calasso’s oftentimes grisly living autopsy of secular society demonstrates, this is an untenable situation, as secular thought proves “insufficient, inadequate even in relation to the elementary facts of life.” The Unnamable Present offers a sobering diagnosis of the pathologies of a peculiar era in which “secularists speak with priestly compunction and priests try to pass themselves off as professors of sociology,” and is therefore to be heartily recommended. 

Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer, writer, and researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology.

*****

Philip Leigh: For those of you in the market for Christmas stories, consider the formula revealed in two classics that amplifies the season’s magic.

At the end of a good Christmas story, the problem confronting the protagonist didn’t change, but he did. When A Christmas Carol ends, for example, Scrooge remains an old man who has wasted most of his earthly life. His situation did not change, but he did. Similarly, after his epiphany on the bridge in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey continues to be confronted with bankruptcy and police arrest. George’s circumstances didn’t change, but he did.

A Christmas Carol cover

Notwithstanding that these two stories were written a hundred years apart, novelist Andrew Klavan suggests that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life are structurally the same story. One is merely the mirror image of the other. In the first, spirits visit a greedy man to teach him about the damage he has done in the world. In the second, a spirit visits a generous man to show him what the world would be like without him. Klavan even claims that A Christmas Carol is a metaphorical “Fifth Gospel” because it brilliantly integrates the concept of eternity with time as we humans experience it. By exploring the past, present, and future with three ghosts, Scrooge learns that his spiritual life is an eternity that encompasses all three tenses. Thus, it is never too late for him to change. 

Philip Leigh has written six books on the Civil War and Reconstruction, including U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency and Southern Reconstruction.

*****

From all of us at The American Spectator, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and happy reading!

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