The editors, friends and colleagues of The New Ledger are sharing a few recommendations today for good reads and interesting books worth looking at this summer. From the Northern Wastes to Israel, the NBA court to the Persian Empire, Montezuma to William F. Buckley Jr., our recommendations are shared for your perusal. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy. A very good portrait of the man and his deeds and words. It is a most useful reminder that politics is very old, is mostly succeeded at by those who understand human nature and the role of words as well as money and arms. What is learned and practiced can be for good or ill, for right or wrong, but the requirements are the same whatever the motivation: the ability to move human beings with rhetoric and personality in the context you find yourself in. There is no magic or special knowledge. And money and arms are often necessary, but not sufficient.
John Randolph of Roanoke, by Russell Kirk. Old Man Kirk wrote several more famous, many more brilliant, but very few more memorable and evocative books than this slim volume about one of the greatest orators, statesman and characters in American history. As a bonus, the Liberty Fund edition of Kirk’s study includes a nice selection of Randolph’s speeches in the back.
Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, by Anthony Esolen. In this fine work, Prof. Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, and editor and translator of the Modern Library edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, gives the reader a survey of Western literature with an eye toward the marvelous myriad ironies, both gentle and shattering, depicted by literary men in the Christian tradition, and how these ironies produced such an explosion of creative power. Esolen’s scholarly range is enormous, his intellect sensitive and humane, his pen elegant: the book is a tour de force.
The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic, by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. It’s 1930. You are sixteen years old, British, Victorian, in a boarding school your family can no longer afford. So you join the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in a shot span of time, you find yourself on remote arctic Baffin Island, in a world of sub-zero temperatures and incredible adventures. This is a book about the transition of history, the point where the Northern wastes were finally being discovered, and about the clash of culture and life, civilized and primitive, viewed through the eyes of this young explorer. Maurice wrote this memoir in his old age, and his writing is spare and sometimes struggles, but the story he tells is so magnificent the occasional failings of his prose can be forgiven. Also: It is good to read this book when it is hot outside.
The King’s Gold, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Pérez-Reverte is one of Spain’s most popular novelists, drawing American critical comparisons to Anne Rice or Umberto Eco, but his work is somewhat uneven. Author of The Club Dumas, The Seville Communion, and The Queen of the South, Pérez-Reverte is a consummate trickster: always one more deception, one more false lead, and he revels in this role a bit too much at times. That said, his books make fantastic beach reading, and they are far more intelligent and inventive than many American authors with similar subject matter, without bogging you down with too much seriousness (with the notable exception of El Pintor de Batallas, a serious meditation which I can’t decide if I like or not). He’s also willing to go on the occasional rant of a spirited Spaniard, as seen in a paragraph from this book, a swashbuckling yarn about Pérez-Reverte’s repeated character, Captain Alatriste:
“Poor Spain may have been an empire in decline, with more than enough enemies eager to dip their bread in the sauce and mop up the gravy, but the old lion still had teeth and claws enough to go down fighting before its lifeless body was shared out amongst the crows and the merchants, whose Lutheran and Anglican duplicity — Devil take them — never seemed to have any problem combining their worship of a very indulgent God with piracy and profit…If one were to believe the chroniclers, we Spaniards made war and enslaved people purely out of pride, greed, and fanaticism, while those who murmured about us behind our backs, they, of course, plundered and trafficked and exterminated in the name of liberty, justice, and progress.”
Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs, by Buddy Levy. This is a summer book list, and I like to keep the heavier stuff for the winter. Levy’s Conquistador is an ideal summer history book by that measure: this is readable, interesting, and occasionally gripping work by a solid and entertaining writer (who clearly has great interest in his subject matter). The drama of the conquest of Mexico and the meeting of Cortes and Montezuma, two men at odds over the future at a remarkable point in history, is excellently described. The amount of good fortune involved for Cortes, and bad for the Aztec Empire, is astonishing at times. This is a survey, not deep history — but if you know little about the Gran Conquistador, it is an excellent place to begin. I liked Levy’s style immediately after the first page, where he has a particularly apt quote from Cormac McCarthy: “Men of God and men of war have strange affinities.”
FreeDarko presents The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today’s Game, by Bethlehem Shoals, et. al. Beautiful. Brilliant. Gorgeous. Tasty. These are all words I thought to myself as I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the Macrophenomenal, not so much a compendium of art and philosophy as a guidebook to a land unknown to all but the most devoted NBA fan. A book like this really shatters the typical analysis of such professionals as Sports Illustrated, The Worldwide Leader, or even the insightful Sir Chas. Barkley – it shows us that for all of their analysis of minutes, ratios, percentages, and scoring plays, they have never told us a thing about the soul that drives the National Basketball Association, from which arises the courageous dedication of drive, the audacious generosity of assist, and the macrophilosophy of slam. The most inventive, inscrutable, and satisfying book I’ve read all year.
Anyone who thinks Obama is a great speaker and thus a visionary politician should read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” available in several collections, in which he articulates the reasons why cliches, shibboleths, vacuous aphorisms, and meaningless exhortations are not only aesthetically offensive but dangerous to democracy, freedom, and human reason. While they’re at it, they should also read Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a) because everything by Aristotle is frickin’ brilliant, and b) because they might learn exactly how Obama is screwing with their heads.
Given the asinine and pathetic partisan antics currently surrounding the issue of CIA “kill squads,” all should read Aaron J. Klein’s excellent Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, about Israel’s Operation Wrath of God (we named them better back then) on which the CIA’s plan was apparently based. Klein’s book shows that any anti-terrorist war is ultimately an intelligence war, and that a determined policy of targeted assassinations can be an extremely effective strategy.
For further reading on Israel’s long war against terrorism, Yoni’s Last Battle: The Rescue at Entebbe, 1976 and The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu: The Commander of the Entebbe Rescue Force provide a fascinating inside into the Entebbe raid, one of Israel’s greatest anti-terrorist victories, as well as the personality of the man who died leading it, who also happens to have been the older brother of the current Israeli prime minister.
House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, by David Bellavia. As good a recounting of infantry combat as you are likely to read. Bellavia’s memoir of the Second Battle of Fallujah is as gripping as any novel, and more important.
Just recently published in paperback: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change, by Jonah Goldberg. A great history of the common intellectual threads between European Fascism and American liberal progressivism. Uneven in spots – Goldberg is best when doing his history, but occasionally overgeneralizes on contemporary arguments. What’s fascinating is that the book was written before the rise of Obama and the massive recent incursion of government into managing the U.S. economy, but so much of what has happened and how Obama argues for his policies is prefigured in this book.
I recommend a quick read: Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley. An interesting and heartbreaking story of an only child being orphaned at age 55 when both parents die within a year, the story is even richer and more interesting because the parents are Pat and Bill Buckley.
As a disciple of WFB since I was 12 years old, I was captivated by Christopher’s emotion, anger, fear, humor and self-exposure. I laughed, I grimaced, I chuckled and I cried. While Christopher has been heavily criticized by some on the right, I find the criticism unfair and short-sighted. Certainly the man who stood athwart history yelling Stop! can withstand some scrutiny from the insecurities of an only child. It should be the next book you read.
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer, manages to do two things that very few books can: explain the inexplicable, and remain relevant to more than half a century of “current” events. The True Believer was a common man’s explanation for what drives fanatics and the mass movements they join. Hoffer, a longshoreman, had an unusual occupation and writing style for his chosen field of study. These traits will be off-putting to some, just as to others, they explain the originality of his analysis. Hoffer drew on his encyclopedic, self-taught knowledge of history, identified patterns in it, applied those patterns to the motives of its subjects, and ultimately produced the most useful explanation I’ve read yet for what drives the world’s most destructive people.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. An astonishingly prescient and powerful examination of democracy by one who appreciated its strengths while remaining tremendously ambivalent about it. While it is always risky to try to fit Tocqueville in the camp of a particular political philosophy, there can be little doubt that there was much about Tocqueville’s writings that appeal mightily to small-government advocates like me.
2. F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Another powerful work that will be helpful in reminding us that “a government big enough to give you what you want is also big enough to take it all away.”
3. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. The original chronicler of realpolitik, Thucydides will serve to remind the readers that the history of humanity is generally littered with tragedy and calamity. It makes for tough and wrenching reading, but it’s necessary reading nonetheless. The Strassler edition is perhaps the best one out there (it tracks the classic Crawley translation and has maps), but for the sake of enjoying some variety in the translation, perhaps readers would wish to avail himself of the acclaimed Hobbes translation as well.
4. Herodotus’s The Histories. Another Strassler rendition of a classic. One of the salient virtues of the ancient historians is that they save us moderns some valuable time in applying the lessons of history to present circumstances by reminding us, through their writings, that there really isn’t anything new under the sun. What seem to us knotty problems of consequence with historical meaning have, in fact, been addressed by others. One such other was Herodotus.
5. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. There are ever so many claims that Barack Obama is a Burkean figure–claims that draw their inspiration from the time the President spent teaching law at the University of Chicago, which is famed for having more conservative and libertarian scholars than other comparable universities (this, of course, is sort of like boasting that a given baseball team has won more World Series championships over the past century than have my beloved Cubs, but let’s put that to the side for the moment). If this is genuinely the case, let the President demonstrate his Burkean credentials by making it a point to curl up with the Great and Good Irishman for a good read and think. But even if he doesn’t, others should.
7. Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vols. 1, 2 and 3. No, I am not a believer in American declinism; quite the contrary, I believe that our best days are ahead of us. That doesn’t keep Gibbon from being an indispensable part of any library of note. His timeless observation on the fall of the Athenians–”In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”–is one we ought to take great care in remembering.
8. Any book by Milton Friedman. Just peruse this site to understand why Friedman has so much to teach us–the blather of his irresponsible critics notwithstanding.
9. The Riverside Milton. Speaking of personages Miltonesque, we just recently celebrated the 400th birthday of the great John Milton and while Paradise Lost is his most famous work, the reading I especially recommend is Milton’s celebrated defense of free speech in the Areopagitica. Milton’s argument in the Areopagitica is something we should keep in mind the next time someone speaks of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, not to mention augmenting the current campaign finance “reform” regime so unfortunately thrust upon us by John McCain, Russ Feingold and their many enablers.
10. Amity Shlaes’ much-discussed book The Forgotten Man, which should be must-reading for those setting economic policy in the Administration, Congress, the Federal Reserve and just about anywhere and everywhere else. (Full disclosure: Amity Shlaes is a fellow Lab Schools alum, and in e-mails to me, she has been known to be gracious, charming and deeply supportive of my own paltry efforts at writing. Perhaps this has played the Mother of All Jedi Mind Tricks on me and is responsible for my recommendation of her book but I dare say that even if Amity was the most mean-spirited, churlish, arrogant, insulting, toxic soul to ever walk the face of the Earth–in short, if she possessed the exact opposite personality she actually possesses–I would still recommend her book. It’s that good.)
11. And finally, since Iran is in the news, be sure to read the Shahnameh. It is impossible to understand Iran without doing so.
Lancelot by Walker Percy: Lancelot is the perfect book to read when you feel like the good, old USA is circling the bowl. This books is permeated with the scent of decline and fall which manages to penetrate even the nose of a man busy ignoring his life. When he discovers that evil is something that really exists, the action begins in earnest. The last few pages of this book will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and tingle. It’s a cliche to say so, but it actually happens in this case.
The Separation of Church and State by Philip Hamburger: Professor Hamburger has written the definitive account of religion, politics, church, and state in America. Anyone who professes to understand the subject should add this one to their armamentarium. The book received a lot of notice for pointing to the anti-Catholicism of Justice Hugo Black, but there is much, much more to this incredibly rich study.
The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century by Roland Bainton: The Reformation is at least in the top five historical movements that shape who we are today. Just as Chou Enlai once famously remarked in the 20th century that time would tell how the French Revolution would work out, we are still experiencing the reverberations of the Reformation. Bainton is one of those great, old scholars who wrote books for everyone without sacrificing quality. The key: He knew how to write and had mastery of his subject.
Adventures of a Bystander by Peter Drucker: Drucker wrote a number of management classics, but none can compete with the sheer entertainment value and assorted wisdom of this autobiographical volume. Reading this book informs the reader about an old world in Europe that was passing by (imagine an Austrian financial firm where the junior partner gets the courtesan!) and a vigorous America rising to take its place. Drucker’s talent as a storyteller and observer really shines through in this underappreciated book.
The Terror, by Dan Simmons. I do not know what is so fascinating about stories set in the polar regions. The bareness. The isolation. The depiction of humans at their best (inveterate explorers) and their worst (every man for himself). There is a sub-genre of fiction and non fiction including autobiographical accounts from Ernest Shackleton and others that are, to me, strangely compelling.
If you belong to this polar literary club, Dan Simmons’ The Terror should be on your list. The book is based squarely on the actual lost polar expedition of Sir John Franklin aboard HMS Terror and Erebus. The expedition departed England in 1845 searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. No one returned from this ill fated expedition and the fate of its members remains a mystery to this day. Though research and discovery of remains and other clues over the decades has revealed much.
The level of detail Simmons presents of 19th century arctic exploration is remarkable. His O’Brian-like mastery of the Royal Navy and things nautical is an anodyne to those of us who pine away for tales of Captain Aubrey and pal Maturin. And yet Simmons is able in this novel to introduce an element of surreal horror that in no way obstructs his storytelling, and in no seems out of place in the natural surreality of the arctic.
I admire his shifting POV method of story telling as well as his abject refusal to resort to cliche. Also, his ability to present the worldview and theology of a “primitive culture” in terms that create understanding and even sympathy is impressive. Warning: if you are the least bit of a “green” you will leave this book less enamored of polar bears than you are now and may very well have a hard time deciding exactly what is wrong with a little bit of global warming.
The Spies of Warsaw, by Alan Furst. If Le Carre approaches the point of departure where the spy thriller become serious literature, Furst easlily transcends it. His heroes are all Liberals, in the classic sense of the term — meaning that they hate Hitler and Stalin equally. Furst may be guilty of writing the same book over and over — but I love every second of it. All of them are set in those watching-the-car-wreck-in-slow-motion years just before World War II. The setting almost always includes Paris — that recognizably noir, before-the-war Paris with lots of trench coats, femme fatales and agents following you around.
A restaurant he mentions in every book is La Brasserie Heininger. It has at its table 14 a bullet hole in the mirror resulting from a Bulgarian shoot out in the men’s room in the 1930′s. Management decided to leave it unrepaired as a memento. This was also the table where a notorious British female spy used to seduce many lovers into giving up secrets or working for British SIS. Oh yes and they have great sauerkraut — or “choucroute” the French version of course. When endeavoring to find whether this is a real place or not, I discover this:
If you’re a hero in an Alan Furst novel, and you are, you will do what you must; what you can. What else is there to do? In the world of Alan Furst, you will be pitilessly squeezed in the most diabolical vice ever invented for the soul of man, between the Communist neo-Machiavellians of universal history and the fascist neo-Machiavellians of national romanticism, whose armies and secret police, resolute in murderous cynicism, are crushing between them what is left of the moral universe of Europe, of Western civilization in the epochal years 1933-1945…
There, on an ordinary night, you will find “magnificent bedlam—the music of forks and plates, the ring of crystal glasses touched in toast, manic conversation, unbridled laughter, shouted greetings to friends at far tables. The huge mirrors [glitter] red and gold, the waiters [run] to and fro with trays of langoustines and bottles of champagne. And the most colorful characters in the world. Kiko Bettendorf, the racing driver. The Duchess of Trent, accompanied by her deerhounds. The mysterious Mlle. M., perhaps with both her lovers.
Sadly, there is no such place as Brasserie Henninger. However, Furst’s location is aparently modelled on a real restaurant called Bofinger near the Bastille. Do they have a table 14, I wonder?
The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada, by Neil Hanson. I had an English history professor in college who refused to teach what he called “drum and trumpet” history. Which leaves what? Enclosure? Drainage of the fens. Repeal of the Corn Laws? C’mon Prof…England is NOTHING BUT drum and trumpets! And nobody does a better job of it that Hanson in this book. Mind you, he takes a rather dim view of Elizabeth I from time to time. Vain, vacillating and penny-pinching, she very nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But her salty Sea Dogs save the Sceptered Isle. And with such flair!
Hanson reminds us while the Dons where gussied up and gilded from stem to scupper the English ships and their officers were “plain as a parson’s coat.” Made for work, not the parade ground. Wooden ships, iron men and sound gunnery turned the tide. And the book makes one thing perfectly clear: Whatever the dynastic, imperial and commercial reasons, the Armada was at its core an Instrument of the Spanish Inquisition –even if you didn’t expect it. It was a crusade to crush the beating heart of the Protestant Faith.
Myth-busting is the second best reason to read this book. The English fleet was actually not inferior to the Spanish. Not in numbers and certainly not in technology. The Armada never really ever had a chance of success. Even if it had landed and brushed aside Elizabeth’s meager army, it would only have provoked a decades long guerrilla war much like the Spanish were then fighting — and destined to lose — in Holland.
The best reason to read this book is it nearly goes off the scale in evoking those back-of-the-neck hair tingling, Patton-esque “I was there” moments so deeply etched in Anglo-Saxon consciousness. Drake’s spoiling raid on Cadiz, the beacon fires lighting across the width and breadth of the land after the Armada was sighted, the fire ships at Calais… Hanson even allows us pleasure in recreating Elizabeth’s stirring “heart of a king, and a king of England too!” — speech at Tilbury Plain — even though he reminds us that this speech was given after it was clear the Armada had failed. And Cate Blanchett’s armor in the (otherwise ridiculous) “Golden Age” film may not be far off judging from Hanson’s description.
If you’re like me — and almost nobody is — you will find a great deal of pleasure in this book.