Every year about this time, friends and family of National Review Online help you with suggestions for your Christmas list. And so, for your consideration, . . .
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe. I was talking with a friend who asked if Wolfe would be regarded as the 20th/21st-century Dickens. I said he is colder than Dickens; one of his self-proclaimed models was another journalist-turned-novelist, Thackeray. Wolfe is our Thackeray, minus the tears — that is, very cold indeed. He depicts a God-less world in which people console themselves with status and sex (which actually torment as much as they console). This time the setting is Miami. There is a cast of dozens; the main characters are Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American cop, and his former girlfriend, Magdalena Otero. Nestor lives for duty, which somehow slips past Wolfe’s categories as something good in itself; but the heart of the novel is the tragedy of Magdalena’s bad choices.
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I don’t much like the Mitford sisters — and I’m not even talking about the Communist and Nazi ones. There, I said it. Nancy was the best of the lot. But the family argot — shrieked! do admit! body worship! — becomes tiresome. Deborah is a — what is the feminine of twit? — twitess. Her correspondent and lifelong friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, however, is one of the past century’s originals. His erudition, his quirky humor, his gusto, and his understated bravery are worth the price of admission.
To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris, edited by J. Jackson Barlow. Not for Founding Father specialists — not even for Federalist-party specialists. This is for Gouverneur Morris specialists. The high point of the book is the section (pages 428 through 431) in which Morris, in a pseudonymous newspaper essay, dissects his peers and partisan opponents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He knew both men — Madison from the Constitutional Convention, Jefferson from serving him as minister to France when Jefferson was secretary of state and then, as a senator, watching him when Jefferson was vice president (and president of the Senate). He liked Jefferson personally; Madison, not so much. But his analysis of the character and motives of both men is unsparing. This is the maximum sustainable hostile view — still worth reading 200-plus years later.
— Richard Brookhiser is senior editor ofNational Reviewand author, most recently, ofJames Madison.
COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL
After a contentious election season — with, for conservatives, a dispiriting outcome — here are my picks for Christmas books that can connect us with an eternal perspective this holiday season:
Saint Teresa of Avila, by Marcelle Auclair. My father gave me this book when I was a college student not terribly interested in the lives of the saints or in a deeper literary exploration of my Catholic faith. Auclair’s gripping biography of Teresa of Avila changed that.
The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. There’s no substitute for reading the feisty, engaging Carmelite reformer and mystic in her own words, and this collection is a perfect way to encounter Teresa in all her holy boldness.
Therese, by Dorothy Day. This was another pivotal book in my spiritual journey. If we consider only the surfaces of their life stories, the bohemian Day and the bourgeois Thérèse of Lisieux may seem an unlikely match, but both share an appreciation of hidden grace and a belief in the power of little souls to change the world.
Story of a Soul, by Thérèse of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. Thérèse’s signature work, written under obedience before her death at age 24, became a worldwide bestseller and helped make this cloistered Carmelite nun a doctor of the Catholic Church and one of the most beloved saints in history. Read it at least twice; profound truths are hidden beneath the surface of Thérèse’s florid prose.
Essays on Woman, volume 2 of The Collected Works of Edith Stein, translated by Freda Mary Oben. Many are familiar with Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and his call for a “new feminism,” but few know about the deep resonance between his writings and those of Edith, a saint whom he canonized. The insights of this Catholic philosopher and Auschwitz martyr are as relevant to women today as ever.
NICHOLAS FRANKOVICH Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel. Your enjoyment of this NRO symposium has a lot to do with physical events in your brain, but it’s not the events in your brain. Subjective experience will forever elude explanation by the physical sciences. So argues Thomas Nagel, who teaches philosophy at NYU. He has been refuting materialist reductionism for many years. It’s false, he maintains, and when it’s joined to Darwinism it makes that false too. He applauds proponents of intelligent design for identifying flaws in evolutionary theory. Calm down: Their alternative theories, he thinks, have flaws of their own. Nagel is an atheist but not an antitheist in any militant sense. He might even be described as an anti-antitheist. For “a dominant scientific naturalism” that is “armed to the teeth against attacks from religion,” he seeks to “extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable.” He even proposes that teleology is true. If he’s right, life is purpose-driven after all.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.