EDITOR’S NOTE: Theologically ideal or not, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. So National Review Online asked some family and friend to gather round and offer some advice on books to give.
Thanks to NR Editorial Associate Elizabeth Fisher, who helped compile your shopping list. Miss Fisher recommends taking this time of year to make sure everyone you know and love has read The Brothers Karamazov.
If American music had a Mount Rushmore, Johnny Cash’s distinctive profile would be prominently chiseled into the rock. When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the gunpowder of a smoking revolver, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ. Cash’s exploits on the dark side, as well as the scorching ring of fire he found in the arms of June Carter, are brilliantly illustrated in Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. If you are interested in picking up where the movie left off, let me suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner. Turner has written splendid biographies on subjects such as Jack Kerouac, Van Morrison, and Marvin Gaye. Of all the many books have that been published since his death, Turner’s is by far the most thorough, honest, and inquisitive. While Walk the Line glossed over the undeniable spiritual power that Johnny Cash tapped into for his freedom from drugs, Turner deals with the story of his redemption with sensitivity and forthrightness.
If you are looking for a coffeetable book to honor America’s favorite outlaw troubadour, you would be wise to pick up Cash by the editors of Rolling Stone. Filled with insightful essays and spectacular photography, any fan will find it as an elegant testimony to Cash. If you are looking for a really eclectic gift for that Cash fan in your life, perhaps will you want to get Man In White, the recently re-issued novel about St. Paul written by Johnny Cash. Few people are aware that Cash loved biblical-era history and used to sit around with his father in law Ezra “Eck” Carter and read the prolific Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as texts by Roman historian Pliny the Elder.
–Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org, a website devoted to faith and pop culture, as well as being the editor of Good News Magazine and editor-at-large of Risen Magazine.
Since I have been working on a book called How to Raise An American I’ve been reading, with surprise and concern, some of the textbooks that students are reading in schools. That’s why I am recommending A Patriot’s History of America by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen recently published by Penguin. Everyone who has school-age children and whose text books may be giving them a distorted view of our country’s history and achievements should have this at home as a ‘fair and balanced” antidote to what they are reading for school.
I also recommend two oldies but goodies that have been the basis for some recent entertainment. “The Light in the Piazza,” which is included in The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales by Elizabeth Spencer, published by the University of Mississippi Press. It is a novella that has haunted me for years , and was the inspiration for the musical that won the Tony this year.
And, of course, the best chicklit book every written Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It is, once again, a new movie–but it is always a better book. Reread it if you haven’t looked at it in quite a while. And if you never read it, lucky you, read it for the first time–and fall in love.
Here are two books I read, on impulse, which were very pleasant surprises:
Book of Haikus, by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s prose leaves me pretty cold, but this book of haiku (he eccentrically added the “s”) shows a real gift. He is not bound by counting syllables. He defines the form as a three-line snapshot. He gets it better than Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s very short poems are pretty good.
NR bonus: Kerouac was a reader when he died.
Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments, by Edmund Gosse. Philip Gosse was a 19th-century English marine biologist, and a member of the Plymouth Brethren, an extremely austere fundamentalist sect. Darwin gave these pieces of his head a sharp shock. This memoir, by his son, Edmund, a literary critic who introduced Ibsen to England, is critical, funny, and loving all at once. Astonishingly, it does not condescend. An interesting sidelight on the I.D. debate.
HistoryAfter the Victorians by A.N. Wilson (2005). Britain from 1902 to 1952. If you asked me what I think of A. N. Wilson, there would be a longish pause before my reply. He can be maddeningly wrong-headed on small matters, like the quality of Ezra Pound’s verse; yet he is fundamentally “sound,” very widely read, and a fluent, elegant writer. This one kept me up way past bedtime, though I slammed it shut in disgust a couple of times… to reopen it ten minutes later.
Math:The Honors Class by Ben Yandell (2001). At the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900, David Hilbert proposed 23 problems for the consideration of his colleagues. This book, to which I came rather late, tracks these 23 problems through the century, giving essential mathematical background and some sketches of the main investigators. Beautifully done.
Science:Huygens & Barrow, Newton & Hooke by V. I. Arnol’d (1990). A wonderfully discursive romp through 17th-century science and its personalities. Bode’s Law, early calculus, the first investigations of power series, and Newton’s possible belief that he was another Son of God (he was born on December 25, see?) all covered in less than 120 pages.
Classic Fiction:Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1895). Germany’s entry in the 19th century bourgeois female adultery genre, but far less well known than Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. I thought it dull when I read it in my twenties. Rereading it earlier this year as background for a book I’ve been writing, I appreciated it much better. So low-keyed as to be nearly inaudible, it is a minor masterpiece. Rainer Fassbinder made a good atmospheric movie of it (1974).
–John Derbyshire is an NR and NRO contributor/columnist/icon. His most recent book is Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics.
Mary Ann Glendon
The perfect Christmas gift for a dedicated reader this year would be the marvelous new translation of Don Quixote by the queen of translation from Spanish, Edith Grossman. This is a book to savor on winter evenings, a few chapters at a time. Even those who have read the Quixote in English before will be charmed by Grossman’s fresh new rendering of the tale and instructed by her entertaining footnotes.
Among this year’s non-fiction works, I will be giving friends Kevin Hasson’s The Right to be Wrong and George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral. The former explains as clearly as anyone ever has what’s wrong with U. S. church-state law and how to fix it. Weigel’s book is a profound meditation on what has gone wrong in Europe, but how to fix it is anyone’s guess.
– Mary Ann Glendon is a Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
For the Democratic elite, I suggest Peter Schweizer’s light-hearted, Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, that chronicles the personal profit-making, love of capitalist largess, elitism, and material addictions of some of the nation’s great liberal critics of affluent America–from Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky. Talk about pigs at the trough!
Robert Lieber’s The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century is a brief but compelling review of American foreign policy over the last five years, and pretty much demolishes the idea that we are roundly hated or that we are culpable for various alleged sins. A sober and very readable account by a Georgetown University scholar whose intellectual integrity and knowledge shine through on every page.
Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman. This is a golden oldie. I reread it this year. Apparently President Bush also read it this year. Hope he memorized it.
Flat Tax Revolution, by Steve Forbes. Tax reform is Bush’s last hope for a big-bang policy proposal. Secy. John Snow is cooking up one. I hope the president and his Treasury secretary read the Forbes book.
Churchill and America, by Martin Gilbert. Winston Churchill was ahead of his time in understanding the power behind the English-speaking nations. Gilbert connects Churchill’s ideas with those of the rising nation across the pond. (For a 21st century update on this theme, read James Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge.)
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln put all his political opponents in his Cabinet, where he befriended them and overshadowed them. Meanwhile, he somehow managed to save the Union and free the slaves. This is a great read.
Another year, another pile of excellent books to recommend. I’ll be upfront: The first books I read these days are the ones close to home, so if a lot of these names sound familiar, don’t be surprised. Sue me for being surrounded by talent.
First off, it’s parochial, but hey ho. Priscilla Buckley’s new book Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir is a delight to read–for NR fans, for history buffs, for those interested in publishing, for anyone who just wants an enjoyable book to read. Speaking of Buckleys, if you haven’t read Bill Buckley’s memoir, Miles Gone By yet, you should. What better way to celebrate his 80th than by treating yourself to his writing?
Raymond Arroyo’s Mother Angelica : The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles is the story of one of the feminists of our day–though so-called women’s groups would never acknowledge the successful media mogul as one. A great story of a great woman and her at times downright bizarre life is inspirational. He’s a great storyteller. Those least interested in a book about a nun will enjoy it as much as aspiring Pope Benedict would.
And that reminds me–I haven’t read it yet but look forward to Peggy Noonan’s just-released biography of Pope John Paul II. I suspect it will be under more than a few trees, too, this year.
–Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.
Pictures and Tears, by James Elkins. Art historian Elkins “posted inquiries in newspapers and journals, asking for stories from anyone who had responded to a painting with tears.” A fascinating analysis of why contemporary viewers steadfastly resist the emotional pull of art. Instead of giving a coffee-table art book, give a book that examines how we respond to art–and why we don’t.
The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos C. Markides. In the life of an Eastern Christian island monastery, visible devils still attack monks, and a wonderworking abbot can telescope time. Beneath this surprising material is an invitation: a pre-modern, mystical faith still practiced today, which offers a bracing alternative to intellectualized Western Christianity. For anyone interested in spirituality of any stripe, or even for those who think they’re not interested.
Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin. With a Ph.D. in animal science, Grandin says that her autism enables her to understand animals instinctively. Lots to learn for the animal-lover on your list.
I’m going to mention just two books that I think would be particularly appropriate to give–or get–for the holidays:
The first is Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson’s writing is invariably light and crisp. He has a clear point of view (which I like and generally find persuasive) but he gives serious consideration to alternative perspectives. No, Johnson’s histories aren’t the most scholarly; they don’t have the most footnotes. Other authors may explore theology more deeply. But Johnson emphasizes the story in history–and the drama. In this book, he tells one of the greatest stories ever told–the tale of Christianity’s evolution and development.
The second book on this very short list: Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. From no other source have I learned more about the Jewish people and their impact on civilization. And I was entertained every page along the way.
C. S. Lewis said literature is what you will read again. Call it a necessary but not sufficient condition. Among the books I have recently reread, and nor for the first time, so to speak, are Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy, in my view his very best work. J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban is even more delightful the second and third time around. Waugh and Powers had the range of masters and the wit and comic sense of angels. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea continues to amaze and delight, as does Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart. I enjoyed Roger Scruton’s Gentle Regrets, memoirs that almost tell us what he believes, and Joakim Garff’s definitive life of Kierkegaard, called, appropriately, Soren Kierkegaard.
Edmund Burke and His World, by Alice P. Miller. I’ve read a lot by Burke and I’ve read a lot about Burke, the man Russell Kirk identified as the first important conservative of modern times. This short book is the first one that made him begin to come alive for me as a real human being–it is not an analysis of his thought, but a simple biography. It is sometimes a little too simple, though it is also a better introduction to the man than just about anything else around. Out of print and worth hunting for.
In the year 1105, Paris was hardly more than a village of muddy streets and few grand buildings, whereas the Muslim cities of the Middle East were splendid places, lavishly appointed. Yet in that very year, some 3,000 pages of Aristotle’s greatest works–missing from the West for more than a thousand years–were uncovered in Toledo, Spain, where the local Catholic archbishop, Raymund, with world-changing wisdom, brought in a team of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars to work together on that treasure trove. Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children (2003) tells the dramatic story of how those long-lost pages changed the trajectory of the future, tilting the West toward empirical reason and practical wisdom. A terrific book: a huge missing piece in the West’s own self-knowledge. And an intellectual turning point as world changing as Newton and Darwin.
To my surprise, the sociologist Rodney Stark is just publishing a perfect companion book, The Victory of Reason, a story of how the Christian commitment to reason (even in theology) led to invention and discovery beyond the givens of Scripture (concepts such as person and Trinity, for example), and soon also to creativity in political organization, science, and commerce. Stark rejects the soft-bigotry of the “Enlightenment,” which described its past as the “Dark Ages.” On the contrary, Stark documents how the great victory of reason began much earlier and in a much different place, than the Enlightenment imagined. His shocking subtitle is “How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”
These are two great books to read or give for Christmas.
Top them off with George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral, to learn what happens to Europe when nothing but the Enlightenment is left.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Skvorecky: This is a beautiful comic novel starring Danny Smiricky, a Czech immigrant to Canada, written by Josef Skvorecky, a Czech immigrant to Canada. It’s a not-to-be-missed tale of exile and jazz, communism, and fascism, love, sex, and politics.
The Conspiracy of Pontiac, by Francis Parkman. The truth is: anything by Parkman is worth giving as a gift. It could be Conspiracy or The Oregon Trail or Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman is a great historian and terrific storyteller. And yes, it is possible to be both. There is almost no better way to learn about the history of America than reading Parkman’s books. And if you know someone who is a new immigrant, sharing Parkman’s clear, concise, and moving history, is one of the most generous gifts you can give.
The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden: This has got to be one of the best engagement presents I got. It’s practical because it includes over 800 recipes. But it’s also an amazingly rich, extensively researched, and well-written chronicle of Jewish life. Plus, reading it will help burn a ton of holiday calories.
Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann: Will this book grant the reader a greater insight into the human condition? Probably not. Does Jacqueline Susann offer a serious commentary on relations between the sexes? Not really, but it’s a hell of good way to pass a cold, snowy night. Those little dolls will have you hooked!
–Abby Wisse Schachter edits the Opinion Books section of the New York Post.
Jesus: The Man Who Lives, by Malcolm Muggeridge. A walk through the gospels with one of conservatism’s greatest writers. This old standby, now 30 years old, is an excellent Christmas gift and arguably Muggeridge’s finest work, full of his usual insight, hilarious wit, and peerless prose.
An Unplanned Life, by George M. Elsey. The newly published reminiscences of the author’s days as a Naval aide to FDR and speechwriter and advisor to President Truman. Now 87, Mr. Elsey spent many hours with Roosevelt in the White House Map Room, served as the president’s personal witness to the invasion of Normandy, and decoded and delivered to Truman the first report of the mission over Hiroshima. The stories are fascinating and engagingly told — the product of careful note-taking, an undimmed memory, and a modest, gentlemanly character.
For young children, The Crippled Lamb, by Max Lucado. The lovely story of an outcast lamb destined to find a place in the manger and to warm the baby Jesus. Also recommended for children: Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White’s classic tale of friendship, clemency, and rebirth. Movie version comes out in June, courtesy of Walden Media and its co-president, NR alum Micheal Flaherty.
The Apprentice, by Lewis “Scooter” Libby. A fine novel by a first-rate man, who is now enduring an entirely undeserved ordeal (and who, when he is vindicated, should be promptly returned to his White House post).
Bombers, Bootleggers and Bolsheviks: A Study in Constitutional Subversion, by Leon F. Scully, Jr. A family favorite, by my late father, who was probably the only legal scholar ever examine the original documents and actual events behind Weeks v. United States and Mapp v. Ohio–the Supreme Court cases that gave us the exclusionary rule of evidence and similar court-imposed constraints on law enforcement. The story he tells–of collusion, rigged test cases, ACLU conniving, and illegitimate precedents–will be of great interest to attorneys, prosecutors, and especially police officers. A short Introduction sets forth the case, with the command of both language and the law that characterizes the entire book.
I’ve given away any number of copies of the Library of America’s one-volume Flannery O’Connor anthology, Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, which contains O’Connor’s complete novels and short stories and a well-chosen selection of her letters and essays. It’s one of the dozen books I keep on my desk so that I can consult it without having to go to my bookshelves, and rarely does a week go by without my dipping into it. I can’t think of a better present for the serious reader.
I’m delighted to report that America’s other O’Connor–Edwin O’Connor, author of The Last Hurrah–is now represented in the Loyola Classics series of Catholic novels with The Edge of Sadness, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. Long out of print and all but forgotten, this haunting tale of a Boston-bred priest and his struggle with loneliness is one of my all-time favorite American novels, at once intensely poignant and warmly funny. The Loyola Press has done yeoman service to the republic of letters by making it available once more.
Turning to three of my professional specialties, the best new book I read this year in my capacity as a drama critic was Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, a lively, wonderfully well-written mixture of known fact and plausible speculation through which I galloped with the utmost pleasure. As for music, Jean Pierre Lion’s Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend is a superior piece of biography that tells the sad story of jazz pioneer Bix Beiderbecke skillfully and sensitively. Finally, I commend your attention to Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the second and final volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of the greatest painter of the twentieth century. Speaking as an art collector who appreciates both sound scholarship and lucid writing, I can’t begin to say enough good things about this gripping chronicle of a crowded, complicated life.
The World of Pooh, by A. A. Milne: A children’s favorite for decades, the stories of a young boy and his imaginary adventures with a bear and other trusted animal companions, who possess distinctly human personalities. Children will be amused and engaged by their search in The Hundred Acre Wood for jars of honey, haycorns, and the ever-elusive Heffalump.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord, by Peter Matthiessen: An exquisitely written story of an American missionary family’s determined descent into the world of an Amazon River tribe, the family’s conflicts with unsavory castaways who co-habit that world, and the Americans’ discovery of an unexplored and primitive side of their souls. A provocative story of how idealistic American intentions and religious zealotry can cause unforeseen epiphanies.
South, by Ernest Shackleton: A first-hand chronicle of the author’s infamous 1914-1917 British expedition to the South Pole, the fate that befell his wooden ship and his tenacious crew, and their miraculous and arduous journey across the ice pack to the edge of the Arctic Sea. The best adventure story I have read and a testament to some of the world’s bravest explorers.
The Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer: Arguably the finest book ever written about war, this is the true story of the author’s experiences as a German foot soldier on the frigid Eastern Front in 1942, his baptism by fire in the horrific battles against the Russians, and the ignoble German retreat, where Sajer and his mates display the utter desperation and the awe-inspiring determination of the soldierly spirit.
The Easter Offensive, by Colonel Gerald Turley, USMC, (Ret.): A first-hand account of the last American military advisors in South Vietnam, most of them U.S. Marines, and how they almost single handedly turned the tide of battle and helped the South Vietnamese army repel the Communist invasion in Spring of 1972. This story is even timelier as a historical reference point in light of our current transition to a military advisory role in Iraq.
>The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan: A chilling account of a modern day North Korean family’s fall from political favor and their abrupt exile to a hard labor camp, where they are subjected to the cruel pathology of their government, witness the hopelessness of their fellow internees, and experience the endurance of the human spirit. The author eventually made his way out of North Korea and is now a journalist in the South. A must read for anyone who wants an insider’s view of life in North Korea.
–Brooks Tucker served as a Marine infantry-unit leader in the Persian Gulf War and is the author of Breach, the first novel about combat Marines in that war. He is a major in the Marine Corps Reserve.
My suggestion is one book: The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy. The book is almost 20 years old, but speaks as if it was written for this nearly-post-Roe moment in time. It’s a wickedly subtle pro-life novel. With the turn of the last page, there’s an impulse to reread it more carefully, just to marvel at how he constructed his subversive story.