rosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree. Santa's on his way, and has filled his sleigh – with some good book recommendations from friends and colleagues of the Claremont Institute…
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Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions, Amherst College
King and Congress: The Transfer of Political Legitimacy, 1774-1776, by Jerrilyn Greene Marston
One of the most remarkable books about the shaping of the American regime in the course of the revolution. With an eye on institutions (e.g., the forming of the Continental Congress, the organization of the army) Marston has a critical perspective on virtually all dimensions of experience in the country in this conflict that brought forth a nation. She is especially precise and even vivid on the constitutional questions—George III moving decisively to the side of making war on the colonies, or the implications in British law for declaring the colonies in rebellion and affecting, with the charge of treason, the British subjects defending the Americans. The irony—and lament—is that the writer of this book did not settle in the academy; she gravitated rather to the practice of law.
The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, by Andrew McCarthy
Andy McCarthy’s book is of course a must. With his experience as a prosecutor and his gifts as a writer, he has become perhaps the leading writer now on law in our politics.
From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, by Wilson D. Miscamble
Fr. Miscamble, an Australian, has become a notable figure on the landscape as professor of history at Notre Dame. But he seemed willing to risk his high standing by giving quite a moving speech last May in opposition to the honoring of Barack Obama at Notre Dame. Those of us who have written on this period of American foreign policy tend to fancy that we know most of what there is to be known. But Fr. Miscamble, going painstakingly through archives with a knowing eye, has found many things that give us slightly different, and firmer understanding of this period. Most notably he calls into question the picture of Truman, as a feisty character, seeing through Molotov and Stalin, striking off in a more realistic path than FDR. What Miscamble brings out is the depth of Truman’s effort to adhere precisely to the substance of Roosevelt’s policies, including the desire to preserve the connection with the Russians.
The Character of Nations, by Angelo Codevilla
Angelo’s classic book is in print again, and it should never have gone out of print. This is the kind of book that Aristotle would have written, on regimes and political economy—if Aristotle, with his worldiness, had managed to see as much of the world as Codevilla has. Available in time to reorder for classes in the spring.
Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, by Francis Beckwith
Frank Beckwith, an accomplished philosopher, spent years as a leader among Evangelicals before returning to the Catholic Church. This book is a thoughtful commentary running to the most elementary but telling questions: what is the relation of a Christian to liberal democracy, or the grounds on which he may accept, for public office, a man whose diaries (as Evelyn Waugh said) may be much in need of editing.
Shadow Play, by Claire Asquith
The most searching, detailed exploration of Shakespeare’s plays, trying to bring out the themes and passages that confirm the Catholicism of Shakespeare. (A Christmas gift from Michael Uhlmann)
A comprehensive study of this notable 19th-century man of letters. Another story of an accomplished writer with enduring reservations about “natural rights” and yet persistently backing into the logic of natural rights, with blissful unawareness. This was one of those cases in which the writer sees more fully than the subject. In a world more rightly arranged, Coleridge would do a study of Edwards.
Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker (available in paper), by Fr Frederick Copleston
Clear as ever—and still riveting. And still bears rereading.
Journey to the Hebrides, by James Boswell
My wife and I have immersed ourselves in the rereading of Boswell, and it is as absorbing, stimulating, elegant as ever. The Journey to the Hebrides has such a concentration of Johnson’s wisdom—on theology, economics, as well as literature—that it’s curious that this book has never been put in the list of things essential to a liberal education. Of course there is no sustained, systematic commentary on politics, theology, economics; but what is there are the flashes of intellect and yes, the wisdom, of this rare man.
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Associate Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Mark Helprin has a strange and wonderful imagination, best displayed in his novels, which always show it off. He understands beauty in its lowest and highest forms, and he understands the gravity of life, which means that he looks for the noble everywhere and sees it in places others often miss.
Freddy and Fredericka mixes Helprin’s wild, strange humor with a deep, ennobling seriousness. It is about the semi-fictional prince and princess of Wales learning how to be king and queen in an age hostile to royal virtue. It is about why nobility is important in an age of equality. Freddy, a man who ought to have been born hundreds of years ago, has an appreciation for the right things. He reads history, he knows his ancestry, and he understands deeply that he must measure up—and what will be lost if he doesn’t. But Freddy doesn’t understand himself, which means that he cannot measure himself against the standard he knows so well and holds so dear. The book is about Freddy learning how to be worthy of something he already knows is important.
Fredericka, his wife, has a different problem. She is stunning, charming, and unlike her husband, adored by all who meet her. Perpetual adoration has made her vapid, and she spends her days considering herself in the mirror and reading glossy magazines. She lacks Freddy’s nobility, but she is incredibly self-aware, which makes her a better judge of her own strengths once she learns what she ought to be. The story is partly about the ennobling of her soul, which allows her to show Freddy to himself.
Helprin’s work has been called “magical realism” by people who don’t quite understand it. Helprin himself has said he detests the term, and considers the genre "exhibitionistic, forced, self-conscious, and almost devoid of emotional content.” His departures from reality are by his own account the result of deep conviction and for the sake of the story itself. Helprin’s stories couldn’t happen, but does that make them untrue? In the end, no, because in his universe the truth of human nature stays the same even when the rules of physics, for example, don’t. He doesn’t create a separate world, he imagines our own as if the limits of the possible are extended.
(Because Freddy and Fredericka is also about travel, the audiobook version read by Robert Ian Mackenzie makes great road trip material. But it’s best to read the book oneself: Mackenzie has a lovely voice, but misses several important jokes; and he makes Fredericka and the Queen sound like wilting flowers, which they couldn’t possibly be.)
This groundbreaking BBC miniseries was released in the United States in 2007, but it bears re-watching each year. With a budget of $16 million, it’s one of the most expensive nature documentaries ever made, allowing filmmakers to record in HD, film stunning sequences using slow motion cameras (including famous footage of a great white shark leaping out of the water to devour a sea lion), and follow herds from helicopters hundreds of feet away. Each of the 6 DVDs explores some part of the world’s geography: shallow seas, the great plains, mountains, ice worlds, the jungle, the desert, and so on.
Planet Earth captures an array of nature’s beauty. Birds of Paradise perform mating dances in the New Guinean rainforest, dromedaries slowly make their way across a desert ridge with the Sahara’s endless sand in the background, and schools of glimmering fish swim between bright coral formations off the Australian coast. But nature’s beauty masks its ruthlessness. The wild is a harsh place to live, and nature is never forgiving.
There are the predators, for example. The series is full of thrilling chase scenes. In one of the opening sequences a white Ethiopian wolf corners a young ibex. Seals go after penguins, a pack of African wild dogs pursues an impala (this scene is filmed from above, revealing the dogs’ surprising coordination and strategy), and in a stunning sequence, Nile crocodiles snap at wildebeest and zebras drinking on the water’s edge. The scene is reminiscent of a 17th-century war tapestry, the animals’ crazed eyes gleaming, legs flailing, and manes flying as they are pulled into the river.
Land predators are often foiled when their prey finds a river or a cave to hide in. At the same time, it’s urgent for, say, an antelope not to lose its footing or come up against a cliff. If it does, there is nowhere to go. Underwater, the rules of the chase are similar. Reefs and rock formations provide refuge for the pursued, and nothing is so dangerous as being forced to the surface. Trapped at the top, desperate fish have no choice but to jump, sometimes to the delight of hovering seabirds.
The series is worthwhile viewing for its beauty, but also for its ugliness, which serves as a reminder of what nature can really be like.
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Columnist, Scripps-Howard News Service and the Sacramento Bee,
Fellow, Claremont Institute’s Golden State Center for State and Local Government
o you’ve read everything there is to read about George Washington, have you? Your shelves groan under the weight of Weems, Marshall, Flexner, Brookhiser, Smith, Ellis, and other greater and lesser lights. Certainly everything that could be written about the Father of Our Country has already been put on the printed page. Then along comes Ron Chernow with his elegant, detailed portrait of the first president, Washington: A Life.
Chernow’s biography relies on a surprising amount of recent scholarship, and he gives us the man in vivid and occasionally unsparing detail. (You will know more about Washington’s dentures than may be appropriate.) Despite all that’s come before, and a few false notes, it is impossible to read Chernow and not come away with a renewed admiration for one who was truly “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
We know Washington was a man of upright character for whom appearances and formality mattered a great deal. We also know Washington enjoyed a stiff drink. He might have found much to like in the company of Bernard DeVoto, noted historian of the American West, curator of Mark Twain’s papers, and editor of Lewis and Clark’s journals. DeVoto was also a columnist for the Saturday Evening Post, where he wrote about more leisurely pursuits. DeVoto’s Post columns formed the basis for a book on drinking published in the mid-1950s called The Hour.
Long out of print and sought-after by collectors and aficionados, DeVoto’s charming volume was republished earlier this year in a slim hardcover edition with a lively new introduction by novelist Daniel Handler. Like Washington before him, DeVoto had rules, first and foremost of which was: No rum. Ever. He’s wrong about a few things, notably the Manhattan, but his “advice to the wayward and beguiled”—which includes his recipe for the classic martini —is a tour de force.
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Matthew J. Franck
Director, the Witherspoon Institute’s William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution
ecause Christmas brings out the “humanists” and avowed atheists to tell Christians that their beliefs are “myths” contrary to reason, it is worthwhile in this season (as in all others!) to consider the relation of faith and reason, and of the two together with political life. Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era is a breezy tour of the subject, intended for conservative evangelical Christians who wonder how to make an impact in public life without compromising the demands of faith. More depth is plumbed by Francis J. Beckwith in Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, aimed at college students who want to live their faith and study politics with a view to making a difference in the public arena without surrendering to “secular liberalism.” Notable in both books, considering that Gerson and Wehner are evangelical Protestants and Beckwith a former evangelical Protestant who returned to the Catholicism of his youth, is the stress on natural-law categories of thought as the way to advance the claims of both faith and reason in the public square.
Excellent accounts of the American founders’ thoughts on such questions can be found in two books on the First Amendment. Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (which I reviewed in the Summer 2010 CRB) is a superb treatment of the views of those three leading Virginians on the interaction of religious faith with republican constitutionalism. And Donald L. Drakeman’s Church, State, and Original Intent is the best book yet published on the original meaning of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and sheds considerable light on how we came to such a distorted understanding of it on the modern Supreme Court.
Speaking of the Constitution’s original meaning and the Supreme Court’s assault on it, I welcome the appearance of Gary L. McDowell’s The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism, a profound contribution to the defense of originalism in constitutional interpretation, as well as a trenchant critique of modern jurists and scholars who have blazed trails into fetid swamps of ant-constitutional mire.
The political book of the season is George W. Bush’s Decision Points, a memoir of his presidency organized topically rather than chronologically. Bush had his critics on the Right as well as the Left, and history will be a long while sorting out the events of his turbulent eight years. But what shines through this book is Bush’s essential decency and thoughtfulness, and an admirable ability to reflect humbly on his own frailties and missteps.
Chance and a well-stocked bookstore brought me to Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes, published a couple of years ago. This book is a delight for anyone with an interest in the details of historical geography. Why is the northern boundary of Delaware a perfect arc drawn with a compass? How come Missouri has that bootheel? Principles, interests, and accidents went into making the fifty states’ shapes: international negotiations, interstate conflicts, congressional bargaining, plus rivers, mountain ranges, longitudes and latitudes. Fascinating fun for geography nerds—and if you aren’t one, Stein might make you one.
Finally, in the category of pure pleasure, readers of P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable oeuvre should know that Overlook Press is producing handsome hardcover collector’s editions of all the master’s books. A majority are out already, and a steady stream keeps coming. Still haven’t found a copy of A Prefect’s Uncle? Now it can be yours!
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Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University
Yalta: The Price of Peace, by S. M. Plokhy
These two volumes provide exemplary perspective on perhaps the most controversial American diplomatic meeting of the 20th century. Harbutt leads us into the conference with a meticulous account of British foreign policy in World War II and the way in which it placed Winston Churchill at cross purposes with both Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt. Plokhy painstakingly examines the meeting itself with reference to both atmospherics and hard policy issues. He concludes that the “concessions” given to Stalin were the Soviet dictator’s to take anyway and that all three principals left feeling they had achieved their purposes. Churchill emerges as the leader with the clearest-eyed view of the future, possessing a frame of reference composed of equal parts of traditional conservatism and essential liberalism.
Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt will doubtless garner literary accolades, awards, and lucrative royalties. Milkis will provide sustenance for those who want to go beyond a well-crafted narrative to a thoughtful analysis of T.R.’s views on “progressive democracy” and what it has to say to us today. This book rightly takes Roosevelt seriously as a political thinker with a coherent worldview.
Mainline to Freedom, by Derek Catsam
Catsam’s stirring account of the Freedom Rides takes us to the origins of the civil rights movement, eloquently depicting activists who took great risks for principle and in the process helped create a more just America. It may also leave us wondering how the civil rights movement progressed from the sublime leadership of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Martin Luther King to Al Sharpton.
Bringing the Market Back In, by John Kelley
Published in 1997, this 270-page volume remains an excellent introduction to the origins of the libertarian conservatism emerging as a major force within the contemporary Republican party. Ron Paul receives his due; Rand was not yet in anyone’s viewfinder. The author is sympathetic to his subject and scrupulously fair in developing it. A dozen years ago, he could pronounce that the movement had a pulse. Today, it resembles a bull moose.
The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols.), by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Fifty years later, this unfinished three-volume work remains an essential treatment of its subject. Schlesinger’s spin is relentless, but his history is nonetheless exceptional. Surveying the early New Deal, warts and all, he proclaims a triumph of democracy while admitting flaws in conceptualization and execution that somehow get lost in the final evaluation. It is a bit much to compare, as some have, The Age of Roosevelt to Henry Adams’s History of the United States during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison. Schlesinger lacked Adams’s relentless sense of irony. Still, the overall excellence of these three volumes leads one to lament the lost second half of his life as the court historian of the Kennedys and a secondary figure in the celebrity culture of New York.
The Hawk and the Dove, by Nicholas Thompson
This accessible account of the personal friendship and professional rivalry between George F. Kennan and Paul Nitze provides easy and enjoyable reading—perhaps a bit too easy, for the author (a grandson of Nitze) is primarily interested in introducing his characters to a wide reading audience. Intriguingly, Mr. Thompson seems to come down more on the side of Kennan than Gramps, but he tells us enough about the latter to reveal an intriguing character in need of fuller exploration.
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CRB Fellow, Claremont Review of Books
Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah said that he hopes all the Jews from around the world will gather in Israel so they might be more easily obliterated. That prompted fears that Hezbollah, which survived Israel’s onslaught in a way no Arab army ever has, was planning a Second Holocaust, while its patron, Iran, denied the First. That seems terrifying enough, but it is its appeal to ordinary Lebanese that makes such hatred all the more chilling. Offering members a messianic welfare state that ministers to their souls as well as their need for affordable medical care and the destruction of Israel has been good politics, enticing Muslims as far afield as America. Described as a state within a state, Hezbollah has, rather, sprung up from the remnants of a failed state—and its zeal won’t remain contained within its borders for long. Can it be contained? Perhaps, but so long as it exists in its followers’ blackened hearts, it is still a threat.
Death be not proud, but Christopher Hitchens, diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer, may have the last word on himself. Hitch-22, published before he knew of his impending demise, opens with a discussion of reading his own obituary, which was published in error but not without cause. Though he channels Monty Python’s famous “Not dead yet” triumphantly as he journeys from one combat spot to another, it seems that America’s most famous atheist has a guardian angel—and a generous liver. Critics have accused him, perhaps fairly, of name-dropping but ‘Hitch’ has known so many people that he would be doing the reader a disservice by not sharing some of his funnier anecdotes, like the time he was spanked by Margaret Thatcher, in full view of witnesses. The best anecdotes, though, aren’t about Margaret Thatcher or tinpot dictators, or even funny at all. They are the touching sort that a man tells about his family. His father, a sailor in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, is justly celebrated for helping to send a Nazi raider to the ocean floor. Post-war, he is aptly described as “Tory without anything to be Tory about.” Hitchens takes great care chronicling his mother’s life, and her ultimate suicide. Clandestinely Jewish and every bit as vivacious as his father was Anglican and austere. Hitch’s warm feelings for her make for emotional, but rewarding, reading. There isn’t a hint of melodrama. His parents’ was a war marriage, and was not to last. But Hitchens’ memoir will last even if he will not.
Fittingly the author of a book about our distracted age, Will(iam) Powers is a professional author-turned-cultural critic. I say fittingly because it seems will power is in short supply as the latest gizmo—iPhone!, blackberry!, Google!, and Facebook!—impede us from the connections that give life real texture as the “screens” in our lives vie for our attention with their incessant beeps and vibrations. The best ancients and moderns you won’t be surprised to know wrestled with their own technological transformations. Powers happily dusts off his “seven sages of the screen”: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau…and Marshall McLuhan. Each teaches valuable lessons in how to manage our time and our souls. Despite what you may hear from Silicon Valley, the world hasn’t really been made anew. Hamlet carried his own tablet, his own blackberry, after all. Powers, who takes the weekend off from digital communications in an “internet Sabbath,” has inspired me to disconnect my home from the internet. No mean feat, that, at least initially. But one full of meaning now that the electric leash doesn’t chaff.
Economist Thomas Sowell authors a book a week, or so it seems with the prodigious now- octogenarian(!). In a packed 192 pages, he chronicles how liberal Democrats, well-meaning compassionate conservatives, and the Federal Reserve’s policy of low-interest rates helped bring about one of the greatest wealth-destroying policies of our time, all to help create more low-income home-dwellers at the expense of the rest of America. The NINJA (no income no job or assets) loans have slashed our home market and it looks likely never to recover. That would be bad enough, but it turns out that the so-called affordable housing crisis was brought on by restrictive local zoning policy. By deliberately constraining the supply of land to build upon, local governments all but guaranteed that the federal government would eventually swoop in to help those who couldn’t pay their housing costs. All of this wheeling and dealing makes us wonder what would have happened if we just followed Dr. Sowell’s current prescription: a constitutional amendment to limit the government’s reach into housing markets? Eh, tea party?
If a page worth of history is worth a volume full of logic, perhaps it is also worth thousands of pages in financial regulations. Roger Lowenstein showed before the Obama stimulus and TARP that a coming politics of austerity will require difficult choices and that those choices aren’t impossible. Indeed, as with our nation’s first financier, Alexander Hamilton, it falls to this generation to design good pension policy from “reflection and choice.” Let’s hope we get it right before the next crisis.
The “Scott Heard ’Round the World” hasn’t quite reverberated past the January 2010 special election. Jon Keller is a rare independent thinker on one Greater Boston’s local television stations. In this book, he’s trained his eyes on self-dealing, self-serving Bay State baby boomer pols who have made the state of Adams, Coolidge, and JFK unaffordable and illiberal. One-party rule gets the scorn it deserves, but Keller ought to have looked also at the “me-too” Republicanism that, like the recently defeated gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker tries to beat the most liberal candidates by running at them from their left (with a self-styled gay “progressive Republican” life-time politician as his running mate). MBA candidates have seemingly managed the party into perpetual decline. Alas, if the politics of Obamcare meet the policies of RomneyCare in 2012, Keller might have to write a new foreword. Republicans across the country might cringe if they hear in an Obama-Romney debate: “Everything I learned about health care I learned from you, Mitt.” Coming to a presidential race near you? Let’s hope not.
The Facebook Effect is the true story on which the hit film The Social Network was based. Or as true as we’re likely to get. The film’s fictional Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook to get girls. The real Mark Zuckerberg has been with the same girl from long before he started Facebook. That, pretty much sums up the move’s accuracy. What are far more interesting are his internal motivations and thoughts that David Kirkpatrick, long-time Fortune writer brings to the fore. How did a company no one had heard of grow to 500 million profiles? True enough, the real Zuckerberg has some of the immoderation that characterizes those to whom success has come too quickly. He is after all, a 26-year-old self-made billionaire. His business cards boast that he was “CEO… b-tch! But now that Facebook has grown from dorm room project to Silicon Valley would-be blue chip, the flip-flopping wearing Harvard drop out dons a tie, as he pursues, in the words of The Simpson’s spoof, the only degree that matters—honorary, connecting the world one friend request at a time.
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John B. Kienker
Managing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Never Enough, by William Voegeli
Voegeli’s blockbuster is a welcome boon to conservatives in need of a keen, searching critique of the modern welfare state and, really, to liberals who want a fair, thoughtful assessment of what they profess. Growing out of a series of essays for the Claremont Review of Books (see here and here, for example, and here for more Voegeli goodness), the title refers to liberalism’s lack of a limiting principle: there is no ideal size to our ever-expanding welfare state, no goal trying to be achieved; just an indiscriminate, expensive, corrupt mess. For the sake of real reform, Voegeli urges conservatives to come to terms with the continued existence of a welfare state, and liberals to begin working toward one that is fundamentally smarter and more efficient, not only to avoid bankrupting the country but to best help those who need the help.
War: Ends and Means, by Seabury and Codevilla
This title remains the indispensable textbook on war and peace for the general reader who wants to learn what they are and what they aren’t—and why the horrors of war are sometimes preferable. Dispelling today’s conventional wisdom by drawing on numerous examples throughout history, the authors provide a masterly tutorial on when, why, and how wars are fought, and how they are concluded in a way that results in true peace, the tranquility of order.
The Future Church, by John Allen
One of the finest journalists covering the Catholic Church today, Allen devotes a chapter to each of the ten trends he outlines (including Islam, the biotech revolution, and globalization), closing each chapter with predictions ranging from near-certain, to possible, to long-shots. Overall, he argues that the Church will become more truly universal over the next century as the global South—Africa, Latin America, and Asia—comes to have a greater influence on the Church’s priorities, tone, and outlook, reflecting Catholicism’s growing strength in these parts of the world. This shift, Allen expects, will mean a Church that is more morally conservative, biblical, youthful, charismatic, ecumenical, and lay-lead, and at the same time more favorable to wealth redistribution, the United Nations, and environmental concerns.
We Are Doomed, by John Derbyshire
So caught up are with the joys of Christmas, we forget that Advent is a penitential season. And what better way to sober up after the sweeping midterm elections than with this grinchy treat, in which the Derb throws cold water on the notion that we are poised for sweeping conservative victories anytime soon. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he says it with wit and verve, and as a fellow pessimist, his general theme that “things are bad and getting worse for our movement, our nation, and our civilization” sounds about right to me. At least, ask me again in 25 months after President Obama’s Second Inaugural.
We Still Hold These Truths, by Matthew Spalding
Last year I called this book “perhaps the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding.” Now in paperback and expanded with a video and leader guide, it makes a great gift.
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Professor, Naval and Military Strategy, U.S. Naval War College
f anyone needs to be convinced of war’s central importance in the story of mankind, the book to consult is Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. A political scientist who teaches at Tel Aviv University (as well as a reserve officer in the Israeli army), Gat brings an impressive learning across many fields to this monumental work, which is especially interesting on the place of war in “the evolutionary state of nature” and among primitive tribes.
Similarly ambitious in scope and historical reach is Daniel H. Deudney, Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village, a radical rethinking of the theory of international relations as conventionally conceived. Though his tendency to academic jargon and neologisms will put off some readers, Deudney achieves nothing less than an Aufhebung of contemporary realist and liberal internationalist approaches through the rediscovery of a synthetic “republican” theory anchored in the classical polis as well as in the “Philadelphian” system devised by the American Founders. Anyone interested in political philosophy will learn much from this rich, challenging, and genuinely brilliant work.
On a lesser plane, three other recent books dealing with war may also be mentioned; all of them have received surprisingly little attention given their merit. Frederick W. Kagan’s Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy provides a crisp, comprehensive account of the development of American military policy and thinking from the aftermath of the Vietnam War through the war in Iraq. Mark Moyar’s A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq demonstrates convincingly the importance of individual leadership in the success or failure of counterinsurgency operations throughout (mostly) American history. Finally, Douglas J. Feith’s War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terror is far and away the best insider account (Feith was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005) of the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the “global war on terror” and its invasion of Iraq. Though respectful of his colleagues at senior levels of the administration (with some exceptions—CIA director George Tenet in particular), Feith gives a fair-minded (and very well documented) account of the strengths and limitations of individual bureaucratic players as well as the dysfunctionalities of the decision-making process as a whole. Feith’s book has been virtually shunned by the prestige media as punishment for its cogency as well as for the author’s prominent place in the now-notorious neoconservative “cabal.”
Another book in the politically incorrect category that I cannot refrain from mentioning, though it strays from my lane, is Ian Plimmer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, The Missing Science. In this entertaining and stupefyingly documented if somewhat chaotic study, Plimmer, a distinguished Australian geologist, marshals the evidence from the entire gamut of scientific disciplines against global warming as a manmade phenomenon and smartly raps the knuckles of the cabal (no quotes this time) promoting this fraud.
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Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor of Political Science, Assumption College
he fall of 2010 saw the publication of two masterly books by the French political philosopher Pierre Manent. In my view, these are mandatory reading for all serious students of politics, philosophy, and religion who happen to read French (alas, not too long ago all cultivated people read French).
The first, Le regard politique, is an absolutely scintillating conversation with Manent in which he traces his intellectual itinerary and shares his broad reflections on contemporary intellectual and political life. In remarkably limpid, memorable prose, we learn about Manent’s upbringing in a Communist family, his youthful conversion to Catholicism, and his accompanying discovery of political reason and political philosophy as a result of his encounter with the person of Raymond Aron (“an orator in the Ciceronian sense of the term…who [spoke] with authority and competence and eloquence about the public thing”) and the writings of Leo Strauss (“the author with whom I have most intensely debated”).
The highlight of the work is Manent’s reflection on the three “poles” of human existence: politics, philosophy, and religion. Rather than arbitrarily choosing among them, Manent’s work attempts to do justice to these three great articulations of human experience and the human soul. For all his indebtedness to Strauss, Manent makes clear that he does not share the Straussian preoccupation with a “philosopher” who, at least, in principle, aspires to transcend the moral and political sphere altogether. Manent provocatively highlights what he sees as an untenable tension in some currents of Straussianism between an admirable Aristotelian or Tocquevillian emphasis on seeing not differently but further than the responsible citizen and statesman—and a more problematic insistence on a conception of philosophy that aims to leave behind the human perspective altogether.
But Manent’s position should not be confused with either a political or Christian critique of philosophy. He fully shares the ambition of philosophy—of reason—to understand the “natural order of things.” And though agreeing with Pascal that “Christianity knows man” he freely acknowledges that Christianity has trouble doing full justice to the political nature of man. Historically, Christianity has been suspicious of that rallying of men’s forces—that prideful self-assertion—which gave rise in the first place to liberty within the city. Yet the Christian church is also a city, a form of “communion,” and the production of the “chose commune” (with its accompanying interrogation about the truth about man, his “essence” and “nature”) is at the heart of what Manent does not hesitate to call the distinctiveness—the superiority—of Western civilization.
The distinctiveness of the West—and particularly of the great enterprise of “putting of things in common” in the “political forms” which are the city, empire, Church, and nation—is the theme of Manent’s magisterial 420-page work Les metamorphoses de la cite: Essai sur la dynamique de l’occident, which was published at the same time as Le regard politique. Manent’s treatment of the “metamorphoses of the city” is also an exploration of the “question of Rome” and the “theological-political problem.” The highlights of this work are its detailed and remarkably suggestive readings of Cicero and Augustine, respectively, and its incisive critique of the modern dream for a “pure humanity”—for a universalism (“we are the world”)—which eschews all political or religious mediation. These two complementary works show that classical philosophy and the Christian religion properly understood stand shoulder to shoulder in resisting the chimera which is the “religion of humanity” with its conflation of democracy with empty and self-destructive forms of human self-deification.
Crossing the channel—the English Channel that is—I heartily recommend Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism: And the Dangers of False Hope. This beautifully written work—it literally contains hundreds of memorable passages and formulations—deserves to be recognized as a classic of conservative, anti-utopian political philosophy. Scruton’s target is an antinomianism that forgets that “institutions, laws, restraints, and moral discipline are a part of freedom and not its enemies, and liberation from such things rapidly brings freedom to an end.” Scruton’s discussions of modern totalitarianism, the legacy of May ’68 (and the worldwide “culture of repudiation” to which it gave rise), and the illusion of the multiculturalists that one can destroy a shared public culture without consequence, amply illustrate this fundamental insight. Against unscrupulous optimists who ignore the wisdom of custom, common sense, and law, against all those who have succumbed to the pernicious falsehood that human beings are “born free,” Scruton recovers the elementary insight that a rejection of utopianism is a precondition for genuine hopefulness about the human condition. Hope, properly understood, is a personal virtue that teaches “patience and sacrifice, and prepar(es) the soul for agape.” Yet while roundly repudiating comprehensive or nihilistic gloom, Scruton raises some truly disturbing questions about the persistence of utopian illusions despite all the evidence that ought to have definitively refuted them. Are human beings—or at least modern intellectuals—finally impervious to evidence and experience?
Finally, every conservative (and honest liberal) will find hours of delight in the William F. Buckley Omnibus edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball, with a preface by George F. Will. The title, Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, itself is quintessentially Buckleyan. More than an impeccable political analyst, Buckley was a lively and stylish commentator on culture and policy, manners and morals. The section on “Dealing With the Communist World”(which will remind the present generation of what precisely was at stake in the great moral and historical conflict which was the Cold War) and Buckley’s remarkable obituaries for friend and foe alike are alone worth the price of admission. The inspiration for this most welcome volume came from CRB editor Charles Kesler, who in remarks following Buckley’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in April 2008, pointed out that much of Buckley’s most important and trenchant work was out of print and needed to be anthologized for future generations. We are all in Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges’s debt for having the perspicacity to act on this suggestion.
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Wilfred M. McClay
SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson
Most readers will know Marilynne Robinson from her fine novels, notably Housekeeping and Gilead, which reflect both a keen intelligence and a profoundly Christian moral sensibility. But anyone who cares about the unique claims to knowledge of what we inadequately call “the humanities” will be well rewarded by a reading of these Terry lectures of Robinson’s. She is a debunker of debunking, calling it "flawed learnedness," and goes after forms of scientism that she calls "parascience." The result is a work that is a minor masterpiece of what Peter Lawler has called “postmodernism rightly understood.”
Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli
Readers of the CRB need hardly be informed about Bill Voegeli’s outstanding gifts as an essayist, and this long-awaited book has proven worth the wait. One of Voegeli’s many talents is an ability to ask central questions that no one is quite asking, but that, once they have been formulated, prove unforgettable. In this book, the question being posed is, at what point is the welfare state “big enough”? Why is it that the New Deal’s inadequacy is always explained away by its not being radical enough, or the Obama stimulus’s failure to stimulate is attributed to its being too small? And he shows, with a combination of philosophical acuity (one chapter is entitled “Liberalism’s Continuing Inability to Make Sense”) and mastery of empirical detail (another chapter is “Liberalism’s Continuing Inability to Make Payroll”) why the answer is always….as Gwen Welles sang in “Nashville,” with words that could be the theme song of the liberal welfare state…“I Never Get Enough.”
How the Progressives Rewrote the Constitution, by Richard A. Epstein
This book would be worth reading if only for its Preface, entitled “Why We Must Reopen Closed Debates.” But there is more. Epstein believes that the robust commitment to federalism and economic liberty in the pre-New Deal constitutional order have been ignorantly discarded, and the time is long past for a second look. This compact, dense little book is a provocative beginning.
Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, by Eric Miller
Christopher Lasch may not have been a CRB type, and was certainly no conservative. But his work was always worth reckoning with. Indeed he is one of the few major intellectual figures of late twentieth-century American whose reputation is likely to survive and grow with the passage of time. His brand of historically and psychologically informed social criticism was uncommonly prescient and remains surprisingly relevant to our current cultural dilemmas. But above all one values him as an honest seeker, which is what Eric Miller brings out so luminously. Lasch presents an interesting case of a man who started out grounded in all the incontestable verities of modern thought—Marx, Freud, the Frankfurt School, tutti quanti—but over a lifetime managed to think his way through them all, and end his days on the verge of a recovery of religious faith. But only on the verge. A poignant story, poignantly told.
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton
A book that discusses wine as an accompaniment to philosophy, and philosophy as an accompaniment to (and byproduct of) wine. Beyond that, a work that it is impossible to summarize, except to say that it is the sort of book from which one emerges a better, more civilized person. It offers a journey that is by turns serious and rollicking, as befits its subject, and suffused with Scruton’s immensely winning combination of wit, learning, and humor.
Apples of God in Pictures of Silver: Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass, edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merrill, and Adam Schulman
A perfectly wonderful book of essays on various subjects, held together by the luminous intellectual and moral presence of Kass in this circle of writers who have been influenced by him, including the three editors, as well as Kass’s wife Amy, Eric Cohen, Harvey Mansfield, Gilbert Meilaender, and others. Especially valuable are two contributions by Harvey Flaumenhaft: first, an introduction on Kass’s career, catnip for those who wonder about the formation of this remarkable man; and second, his fine essay on Plato, which culminates in the following words, which could be a pronouncement on the book’s true subject, and which curves back toward the thrust of Marilynne Robinson’s book recommended above: “The liberal modern state needs to be informed by true thoughtfulness as much as by modern liberal principles.” Amen to that.
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Manager, the American Enterprise Institute's Program on American Citizenship
orget Jonathan Franzen and all his friends in Brooklyn who have something IMPORTANT to say about the way we live now. (If you really can’t help yourself, click on that first link and read B.R. Myers’s scathing review of Franzen’s Freedom.) The real novelists of ideas today are both women, and neither one lives in New York.
The first is Marilynne Robinson, author of just three novels, but all of them gems: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home. If you haven’t read them, I’m recommending them again (only $30 for all three on Amazon!). For everyone else, I urge you to pick up her latest nonfiction work, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self, which collects four lectures she gave at Yale University on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” As always, her prose is gorgeous, and her arguments—against the scientific fundamentalism of the so-called new atheists—razor-sharp.
The second is the English novelist Hilary Mantel. I wish I was recommending The Mirror and the Light, her eagerly awaited sequel to 2009’s Wolf Hall, but that will have to wait until next year (I hope!). While I suffer pangs of anticipation, you can enjoy Mantel’s brilliant recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Her scrupulously researched Wolf Hall does the impossible—reinventing the familiar Tudor saga from royal soap opera to history of the modern nation-state. (A certain Niccolò makes a cameo appearance.) But Mantel is used to performing miracles: with her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, she manages to make even Robespierre sympathetic while never letting readers forget his crimes.
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Former Editorial Assistant, Claremont Review of Books
o Claremont reading list is complete without an exhortation to read and reread the classical works of political philosophy. A list of the best translations of Plato can be found here, and a list of the best translations of Aristotle and Xenophon can be found here. Politically, these works demonstrate the limits of politics, and the ways in which consistent laws, virtue, and prudent statesmanship are necessary for the health of any regime. Individually, they help liberate us from reigning ideologies and relativism of our age. They allow us to examine our deepest longings and consider how we might lead most excellent lives. With fresh eyes, we are guided to confront those common-sense but unsettling questions that we can never quite expel from our minds: What is best for us, and how does that relate to the common good? Is there a truth about the nature of things, and how is it we might know that truth?
True, these works are very difficult, so in keeping with the Claremont spirit I should add that one can never go wrong reading the works of Leo Strauss for guidance. Strauss helps reveal the careful manner with which the ancient philosophers wrote, while at the same time exemplifying their rationalism, depth, and charm in his own writing. An Introduction to Political Philosophy, a collection of his essays edited by Hilail Gildin, offers a fine introduction to his thought. Then I recommend one turn to Natural Right and History, On Tyranny , and The City and Man for a fuller look at how Strauss explored the question of justice and the quarrel between ancient and modern philosophy. This spring one will also be able to read transcripts and listen to audio files of many of his courses, which are being published online by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago.
There have also been excellent commentaries on classical political philosophy in the last year that deserve mention. One can learn a great deal about Aristotle's Ethics from Ronna Burger's Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates and about Plato's Apology from David Leibowitz's The Ironic Defense of Socrates. I would especially commend a book by my former teacher Mark Blitz, immodestly titled Plato's Political Philosophy. It is surely one of best books written on Plato both for beginners and for scholars. It covers many of Plato's dialogues and explores the relationships among his various discussions of virtue and politics. I find Blitz's descriptions of the nature of Plato's philosophizing very helpful. One will especially learn a lot from his discussions of nature and the ideas, as well as from him close examinations of beauty in the Greater Hippias, pleasure and the good in the Philebus, and political knowledge and measurement in the Statesman.
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John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
he winter of 2010-2011 is springtime for James Madison. From different perspectives, three books help us see the link between the work of the framers and the politics of the 20th and 21st centuries.
James Madison Rules America: The Constitutional Origins of Congressional Partisanship, by William F. Connelly, Jr.
Drawing on his experience and extensive study, Connelly argues that the Constitution governs congressional party politics. In our system of separated powers, he explains, neither party in Congress is ever purely the government or the opposition. Sometimes during unified government, the majority breaks with the administration while the minority supports it. Think of NAFTA under Clinton and Afghanistan under Obama. And during divided government, each party faces the constant and uncomfortable choice between cooperation and confrontation. With Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats narrowly hanging on to the Senate, Connelly’s analysis is especially timely. CRB readers will take special note of his thoughts on Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government. He gives Wilson his due as “a worthy opponent for the Father of our Constitution,” but concludes that Wilson misunderstood the separation of powers as simply a barrier to the abuse of power instead of a device to foster deliberation and compromise.
James Madison may rule America, but do politicians acknowledge his handiwork? Do they actually engage in rational discourse about the Constitution? Busch addresses these questions by analyzing candidate messages, party platforms, presidential debates, and broadcast ads. Not surprisingly, he finds that the use of constitutional rhetoric ebbed from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. He also shows that it “has survived and even grown since the mid-1960s,” though it dipped during the George W. Bush presidency. He concludes by asking whether that dip is an aberration or the start of another downward trend. Since the book’s publication in 2007, we have seen a revival of interest in constitutional issues. Members of the “tea party” movement, among others, have criticized the Obama Administration for violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution. It is ironic that this revival is a reaction to a former lecturer in constitutional law.
Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, by Jeff Shesol
This narrative history of FDR’s 1937 “court-packing” plan is a great read. The story is also another testament to the relevance of the Constitution. Despite Roosevelt’s landslide 1936 reelection and his enormous popularity, his effort to stack the Supreme Court with pro-New Deal liberals ran into bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who saw a threat to the separation of powers. As Shesol points out, constitutional worries about Roosevelt had been mounting for years. During his first term, conservatives from both parties formed the American Liberty League, whose mission was “to defend and uphold the Constitution.” The League, in turn, formed the Lawyers’ Vigilance Committee to mount court challenges to the constitutionality of New Deal legislation. Shesol did most of his research and writing before the reaction to the Obama Administration, which makes the parallels all the more striking.
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Julie Ann Ponzi
Fellow, the Claremont Institute
Y Bridge City: The Story of Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ohio, by Norris F.Schneider
Norris F. Schneider and his work were something of a local phenomenon when I was growing up in the place that is the subject of this book. His works were commended to the young but—not being required in school—they were most often disregarded. Later in my cocksure youth, when reading history became more of a vocation than a requirement, I was convinced that local histories—mirroring their small subject—were merely quaint at best and, what’s worse, probably parochial. So I reasoned that though they might offer something to stir native pride or curiosity, a local history couldn't possibly offer anything to stir larger, more universal sentiments. These days I am no longer young and, therefore, I have lost most of the knowledge and surety of my youth, so I decided to pick up this volume as I browsed through a local antique shop on one of my recent visits home.
Imagine my surprise, then, at finding this passage in the introduction:
This book was written in the belief that American citizens would be better
qualified to solve the problems of their government if they were informed about
the making of their nation. If they understood how hard their ancestors worked
to win our liberties, they would be less likely to be become the dupes of
un-American propaganda. Many people, however, are too busy to read the complex
record of this vast country. If they look into a book on American history, it
is likely to seem remote and unrelated to daily life. Perhaps the average man
could read the story of his own Main Street with more understanding. Through a
review of national influences upon his community, he might become familiar with
the making of the American heritage.
The volume—as it worked to tell the story of our town in narrative rather than in thematic fashion—did not fail to live up to this ambition. And to the extent that there are similar volumes about other communities (maybe, even, your own) I think that one might find in them much to improve not only his understanding of America but also—and what may be even more important—his ability to share it with his friends and fellow citizens.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Last Christmas I reported on some works of literature that brought great pleasure to me and to my children as we read them aloud together. They are now aged 11 and 9 years, but I have been waiting for the day—almost since they were born—that we could begin to share the stories of Mark Twain. So eager was I for this experience that I have attempted it at various times and in various ways—always hoping to inspire the kind of rapt attention and wonderment I imagined in this fantasy.
I read them abridged versions when they were very, very young—both to relieve myself of the duty of having to read less inspiring children's literature, and in the hopes enjoying and remembering this, they might someday ask for the real thing on their own. I thought I was waiting patiently, but those hopes did not materialize. So I began to ply them with various film versions of the stories. These they were happy to endure (particularly if it meant more TV time and less bedtime) but, again, they were failures. They sparked no good conversation and did not seem to offer much, in any event, beyond surface plot development. Characters were not developed and stopping a movie to explain context is annoying.
Next I tried forcing the spring, alternately, with bribery and threats. "I will read that dreadful book to you that your friend told you about IF you let me first read this…" or "I won't let you stay up late for a story tonight unless I can read this." I was then reminded that—as it is with terrorists—negotiating with children is always a bad idea. This, too, was a failure.
Then: inspiration! Perhaps the problem with Twain is that the dialects are unfamiliar and I don't do the imitation well? Maybe my reading of it is stilted or unnatural and this explains why they can't or won't follow it? So I downloaded a very good recording of the thing and tried it that way. No. I had forgotten that the main point of my reading to them—from their point of view—was that it was me reading to them. But I had one more extravagant trick up my sleeve. (I would make them want to whitewash this fence or be damned!) On one of our vacations we happened to be near Virginia City—Twain's main destination in Roughing It. So I convinced the tribe to spend some time there and—having that book handy (by sheer coincidence, of course!) —I was able to get them to listen to some of the descriptive paragraphs of the curiosities that were then within our powers of observation. Yet, another year passed, and still my advances at taking up with Tom Sawyer were rebuffed. "Let it go," I told myself in Twain's fashion.
Just as I had forever resigned myself to the horrifying possibility that my own children would have absolutely no interest in my favorite American author, a miracle occurred! Their school took them on a field trip (a day out of school!) to see a production of Big River (the musical version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). Both came home insisting that they wanted to spend more time with Huck. Stupid fool that I have been! I had learned nothing from Twain until my own untutored children re-taught me this lesson: "that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."
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Robert R. Reilly
Senior Fellow, the American Foreign Policy Council
2010 was a year of some amazing discoveries on compact disc. When the history of 20th century music is written in the next several hundred years, will it bear much resemblance to how we think of it now? I have long suspected that there is a hidden history of classical music that would one day surface. It is surfacing now. Most of the CDs below are première recordings. Why is this music being presented now, and not before? Perhaps because the ideological fetters that kept it offstage have fallen. Not only are contemporary composers writing some beautiful things, but their predecessors in the 20th century, who kept the flame alive, are finally getting a hearing.
New CDs of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music confirm in my mind that he was one of the neglected greats of the past century. A Pole who spent most of his productive life in the Soviet Union, Weinberg (1919-1916) spoke the musical language of Shostakovich and shared in the harrowing experiences of that world, including the Gulag, form which he was released only because of Stalin died. However, he never embraced the acidic sarcasm and wild banalities which Shostakovich used to poke his fingers in the eyes of the authorities. Weinberg was gifted with a natural musicality that is expressed in everything he wrote. He used all the conventional forms—symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, etc.—but imbued them with a heartfelt directness and expressive power. If music is a language, one can always hear Weinberg speaking—cor ad cor, sometimes of difficult things, but always with an enduring human spirit. Having seen some of the worst things the 20th century had to offer in its totalitarian brutality, Weinberg did not look away, but he did look up—which makes all the difference.
First off, the Danel Quartet continues its superb traversal of Weinberg’s complete (17) string quartets with CPO release (777 393-2) of volume three, containing numbers 6, 8 and 15. At this point, I am ready to say that this cycle is comparable in quality to the Shostakovich quartets, which is saying a great deal because Shostakovich’s quartets are his best music. This is intimate, very private music, searing in places, ineffably sad and sweet in others.
CPO has also begun a cycle of Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas, volume one containing numbers 4, 5, and Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (777 456-2). Like most of Weinberg’s music, there is a marvelous feeling of spontaneity to these works, beautifully captured by violinist Stefan Kirpal and pianist Andreas Kirpal. These pieces lament, sing, and dance. They are, in turns, deeply ruminative and wildly passionate. If I were doing a list of the best chamber music CDs of the year, this would surely be on it.
Chandos has issued a new recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7, played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under Thord Svedlund (CHSA 5078). As far as I can tell, the First Symphony is a recording première, while the Seventh Symphony has had only one prior release with its dedicatee, Rudolph Barshai, at the helm of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. However passionate and superbly played, Barshai’s effort was compromised by Soviet recording engineers in somewhat harsh and cavernous 1967 sound. The Chandos Super Audio CD has some of the best orchestral sound I have heard. The richness and detail are superb. Audio-wise, it does not get better than this.
April 29 was Harold Shapero’s 90th birthday. Every single work I have heard by Shapero has been notable. One has to go well beyond the word notable to describe his brilliant, scintillating Symphony for Classical Orchestra (you simply must hear this work on either Bernstein’s mono Sony recording or Previn’s stereo one New World Records 80373). The only problem is that I have not heard enough Shapero works—for the insupportable reason that they are not available on recordings. Why not? My own guess is that his music was neglected because he was too much against the grain of 20th century angst and the doctrines of the serial killers who expressed it in unrelieved dissonance.
Shapero is a composer of real spirit and verve, writing in ways that would bring a smile to Haydn’s face if he were alive today. I can only image that his nerve in writing works like the Symphony or his wonderful Serenade in D for String Orchestra infuriated the dodecaphonists. But this 20th-century malady in music is well behind us now, and it is way overdue to celebrate this man and his music. There should be music festivals and new recordings for the nonagenarian, who is still composing. For now, run out and get the Symphony and another New World Records release (80569) of Shapero’s chamber works that entrance in every way. The longest work, the Serenade for String Quintet (a chamber reduction of Shapero’s Serenade for Strings), is 35 minutes of sheer delight. I defy you not to be charmed by this neo-classical confection, a work of wit, gorgeous lyricism, and spiky rhythms.
In 2007, British composer John Joubert turned 80. This occasion drew mush needed attention to his music, which at that time was new to me. I was astounded at the quality of what I heard and puzzled that works of this quality could have been overlooked for so long. I have lauded the recordings of his song cycles on Toccata Records and of the Symphony No. 1 on Lyrita. Now add to this the British Music Society’s release of Joubert’s work for string orchestra, Temps Perdu, the Sinfonietta, and the song cycle The Instant Moment. The string work and the Sinfonietta immediately leap to the very front order of such works in 20th-century Great Britain—a highly competitive field with the likes of pieces by Holst, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Britten, Tippett, etc. They are simply exquisite. As one might imagine from the Proustian title, Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra is drenched in a marvelous sense of expectancy, yearning, and nostalgia. It is written with great refinement. I have fallen in love with it. The Sinfonietta is another gem, with echoes of Sibelius floating through the first of its three movements. If you cannot find this CD locally, go to: www.britishmusicsociety.co.uk
A significant 20th-century symphonic cycle reached completion in the Dutton label’s traversal of Richard Arnell’s six symphonies. I have gone from reluctant listener to avid fan of Arnell’s music. At first, I found his massive Third Symphony a lot to digest, but finally grasped its ambitious idiom and have gone on to devour the other Dutton recordings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates. The Third is music of enormous tumult. There is always an underlying excitement and the sense of reaching for and finally achieving something magisterial. There are moments of almost Bruckernian magnificence. Arnell’s facility with orchestral colors reminds me of both Benjamin Britten and Arnell’s American friend, the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. Arnell’s time has finally come, and he lived to see it before dying at age 92 last year. I can only wonder how works of this magnificence and of such noble striving could have been overlooked for so long, particularly in Great Britain where they are given to doting on even their third-rate composers. Arnell is decidedly first-rate.
Lastly, I will sneak in an amazing Toccata Classics discovery: the chamber music of Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916), even if the music, properly speaking, belongs in the 19th century. Gernsheim is labeled, and therefore dismissed, as a Brahms clone. I was mildly impressed by his four symphonies (Arte Nova label), but had never heard his Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2. They rise to a far different level of genius and accomplishment than his symphonic works would lead one to expect This is not an infrequent phenomenon—that a composer excel in one particular genre and not another (for instance, Sergei Taneyev). I am staggered by these two works. They are incredibly alive, passionate, rhythmically dramatic and melodically blessed. Brahms clone? Here Gernsheim is in competition with the master for the top rung. The Art Vio Quartet and Pianist Edouard Oganessian play as if their lives depended on it. This is a major find.
In conclusion, I think you will discover that the 20th century was not as bad as it sounded.
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Bruce C. Sanborn
Chairman Emeritus, the Claremont Institute’s Board of Directors
he old uncle in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away lives on a farm down South and understands that his mission is to get his nephew’s son baptized. His nephew, who teaches science in the city, finds the uncle and his mission offensive. He knows baptism is not what ought to be done with a mentally retarded child—even if, as is true for the nephew, the child is his only son and even though the nephew’s love for his son gets the best of him, as it often does. At the howling center of this funny, upsetting, artful novel is a baptism or drowning. Running throughout the story are questions about the limits of love and knowledge.
In The Works of Love and in his own name Soren Kierkegaard explores what love means, especially what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This discourse helped me understand better Lincoln’s “proposition that all men are created equal,” among other important things.
This year Yale University Press published David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. The enemies Hart calls to account are historians like Gibbon and philosophers like Nietzsche. The revolution Hart discusses sprang from Christianity’s introduction of a new, improved view of who and what is human. Hart ends the book pointing to the growing success of the enemies of the revolution and the dire consequences of their success. In that I try my best to stay out of the enemy’s camp, I wish you a peaceful, merry Christmas!
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Professor of Political Science, Loyola College
se Well Thy Freedom: This is the motto written in stone on the wall of the college building beneath which mother and daughter quarrel in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. That bit of lapidary advice goes mostly unheeded in this tale of modern familial and societal dysfunction. Although it is a much overrated novel, the ambitious scope of the saga Franzen creates and the moral seriousness of his theme (the perils of choice) are reminiscent of classic 19th-century British and American novels. A better use of one’s leisure might be to stick with the grandest of them all: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The agonizingly misguided marital choices of her main characters provide material for Eliot’s unrivalled psychological acuity—not to mention her superior command of language and novelistic structure. Eliot was of the Left, as is Franzen. For both, pity figures as the most needful and redemptive of virtues. Unlike Franzen, however, Eliot actually helps the reader experience (in believable and imitable ways) how freedom might be used well. She does not rest content with the ironic disjunction between motto and life.
Eliot declared “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” Thomas Chatterton Williams would agree. He has written a terrific autobiographical account of the debasing effects of hip-hop on young middle-class African-Americans. Luckily for Williams, he was subject to a paternal counter-current strong enough to rescue him from the downward whirlpool into thuggishness. His book is called Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. It is eye-opening and disturbing, especially in its graphic portrait of black student life at elite Georgetown, where the values of the ’hood still manage to dominate, destroying for many what ought to be the entrance to a wider world. As we all know, white kids have followed black kids in embracing gangsta rap. What Williams explains so insightfully is that the white embrace has been ironic, whereas the black embrace is earnest—and thus ruinous. The story of Williams’s own transformation may be the most gloriously real presentation of the saving power of liberal education I have ever read. His earnestness (once attached to new and better objects of desire, like wondering “what does it mean to live ‘the good life’—that is, ‘to flourish’?”) transported him to realms of inquiry and experience that most college students are too cool (verging on hypothermia) to rediscover for themselves. Thomas Chatterton Williams has thrown them a lifeline.
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Contributing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
f we wish to know the force of human genius,” said Hazlitt, “we should read Shakespeare. “If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators.” Replace “Shakespeare” with “United States Constitution” and you grasp our present dilemma: men of genius wrote the sacred document; men of genius have not always been on hand to interpret it. Thank goodness, then, for Hadley Arkes, perhaps our nation’s finest, most searching writer on the Constitution.
One needn’t suffer through three years of law school to appreciate the unique brilliance of Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths, but it helps. The book does what most law students sniff at: it traces a constitutional principle from its pre-constitutional grounds, through famous Supreme Court cases, to the pressing legal problems of today. Where others write wearying excurses on the Contracts Clause, Arkes shows us, in artful English, why Chief Justice Marshall was right in Fletcher (1810) and how Chief Justice Hughes was wrong in Blaisdell (1934). Others know to disagree with the infamous Pentagon Papers decision (1971), but Arkes, in a tour-de-force dismantling, shows the case to be unjustified even on its own reasoning. Where others excoriate Lochner (1905) as a matter of course, Arkes rehabilitates it. In each instance, he tells a story, full of wit and engaging detail, and rightly so: these tales are ongoing. Mortgage crises of the sort facing the New Deal court are back in the news. Wikileaks forces to ask, again, when speech must yield to national security. Economic regulation of daily life ranges beyond the wildest dreams of fin-de-siecle Progressives. With Arkes we are equipped to grasp any particular right and then carefully to examine its permissible and impermissible uses.
Arkes, alas, has been mistreated in many of his reviews. Some caricature him so to represent a view that the natural law is a sort of a hunting license for judicial policymaking, when he expressly states his view that that law, rightly understood, is a rigorous restraint on the power of a judge. Others treat the book’s substance, but not its genuine literary charm. One is as equally likely to find reference to Jack Benny as Aristotle—in sentences that often exemplify the better qualities of both. But no spirit hovers over this book like that of the matchless James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a man who was, like Arkes, a conservative theorist with a fighting spirit. Wilson told us that “[t]here is not in the whole science of politics a more solid or a more important maxim than this—that of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles.” And there is not, in the whole empire of academia, a more dazzling guide to constitutional renewal than Hadley Arkes.
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Michael M. Uhlmann
Visiting Professor of Political Science, Claremont Graduate University
he late Peter Rodman was a man of considerable parts—at once brilliant, charming, and self-effacing—who served his nation with great distinction in important government posts during the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush Administrations. His cogent writings on national security and foreign policy, both in book form and in numerous thoughtful essays, retain power long after their first appearance. Leukemia took him from us at the height of his powers at the age of 64, but not before he had completed Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. It is arguably the best short introduction to modern American foreign policy now in print—lively, engaging, instructive, and wise. The book is a fitting monument to his dazzling skills.
For the budding Thomas Edison in your midst, you can’t beat Potato Chip Science, which will lead eight-year-olds (or thereabout) through 29 scientific experiments, all of which can be mastered with a few kitchen implements, a bag of potato chips, and a hearty whole spud or two. The kiddos will entertain themselves happily and safely in the kitchen with this one, while you settle into your easy chair for a quick nap.
For kids and adults who perceive and love the humor of language, you can’t go wrong with anything by Richard Lederer, as for example Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language or The Play of Words: Fun and Games for Language Lover.
Finally, whenever our greatest living poet brings out a new collection, it should be an occasion to remember dear friends with a gift that will keep on giving. Seamus Heaney has just given us Human Chain, which will remind you (and your dear friends) why he’s in a class by himself.
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Author, Churchill's Military Histories
he novelist and essayist Thomas McGuane is pushing 70 and has just published his 15th book. But it is the first three novels he wrote that have given me the most pleasure of any of his stuff: The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973). No recent American novelist short of Saul Bellow has commanded such a glittering arsenal of comic weaponry and taken such delight in deploying it against most known varieties of native foolishness. Not that McGuane reads like Bellow: he is more in the line of Hemingway, if Hemingway had worn his hair down to his waist, mocked his own need to be the toughest guy in the bar, carried on like the Marx Brothers, and written prose that never grew tiresome. McGuane's heroes are young men in danger of losing all dignity who attempt to salvage some residue of seriousness about themselves, with varying degrees of success. Fishing, motorcycles, rodeos, embittered middle-aged antagonists, fetching women who promise and deliver trouble by the truckload, and elegant uncoiling madcap sentences on every page are among the joys that define the young McGuane's world. He's a blast. Try him on.
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Senior Editor, Claremont Review of Books
n the course of reviewing one of Alain de Botton's books, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I became acquainted with others. I particularly recommend Status Anxiety and The Consolations of Philosophy. De Botton shows how a deft and reflective writer turns questions that are usually rendered boring and obscure by academic experts into ones that illuminate, elevate—and complicate—the decisions we all make every day.
This talent for rendering important things accessible was shared by the art historian Kenneth Clark, whose BBC series, Civilisation, first appeared on American public television nearly 40 years ago. It is now available on DVD and holds up extremely well. Clark's politics are unknowable on the basis of his 13-part survey of European cultural history. Appearing at a time when New Leftists on both sides of the Atlantic were declaring Western civilization to be a contradiction in terms, however, Clark gave heart to millions of viewers by reminding them of the ways in which what Europe gave the world was both magnificent and fragile.
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James Q. Wilson
Senior Fellow, Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, by Pauline Maier
Professor Maier’s magisterial account of the ratification debates is eye opening. You were probably told that many states demanded a bill of rights be added, but you may not have been told what these new rights were supposed to be: annual election of members of the House and a ban on Congress controlling the time and place of elections.
Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson
Many writers have long assumed that there was a conflict between Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Not so. They jointly expressed the workings of this extraordinary mind and the influence of Smith’s friend, David Hume.
Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman
The best book ever written about the Philadelphia convention, one that takes the reader beyond limits imposed on writers who stick too closely to the notes of James Madison.
Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser
The author of the legendary Flashman novels recounts his life as a private in the extraordinary campaign, led by General William Slim, to expel the Japanese from Burma. It is the best account I have read of how enlisted men, many of whom disliked each other, formed tight bonds so as to fight bravely in the face of a ruthless enemy.
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Jean M. Yarbrough
Professor of Government, Bowdoin College
Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order, by Charles Hill
The appearance of this book helps us better appreciate David Brooks' admiring portrait of Professor Hill some years back in the New York Times. It is an extraordinary meditation on statesmanship by one of its master practitioners and professors. Would that every college and university taught diplomacy and international relations in this learned and humane way. A beautiful book.
Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli
Readers of the CRB need no introduction to Bill Voegeli, whose judicious essays have been a staple of the journal. In this fact-laden, data-driven analysis, Voegeli starts with a question so obvious that we wonder why it took so long to be asked: at what point would progressives and liberals be willing to say that their welfare state programs had succeeded? Voegeli's argument, which also considers conservative and libertarian critiques of the welfare state, has the great merit of moderation and common sense. Don't be put off by the charts and tables, the book brims with dry humor.
The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes
New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America, by Burton Folsom, Jr.
Both these books offer powerful challenges to the reigning orthodoxy about FDR's economic policies and their effectiveness in ending the Great Depression. So entrenched is this orthodoxy that readers will be astonished by some of the authors' revelations, such as FDR setting the daily price of gold by "lucky numbers." It is enough that these books drive economists like Paul Krugman mad. May they signal the beginning of a much needed revisionism of this critical period.
Reconstructing America, by James W. Ceaser
A tour de force through three centuries of European views of America, with Tocqueville and Leo Strauss emerging as two of her greatest defenders. The chapters on Heidegger and the end of history are gems. If you missed this when it was first published, now is the time. Do not delay.
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Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley School of Law
Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
Having made it through all of the Sharpe series, I decided to take on another British saga, but this one at the opposite end of British life. Dance to the Music of Time is made up of 12 separate novels. They follow the lives of Britain's upper class from the 1920s to the 1970s, roughly tracing the profound effects of the fall of the British Empire on its upper crust. While pessimistic by the end, the series reminds me of how different Americans are from the British and how fashionable comparisons today between the decline of Britain and the position of the United States miss the mark completely.
Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan
Kagan's book is part of a growing trend that upends the grade-school version of American history—one put forward by John Kerry during his ill-fated try for the Presidency—that sees the U.S. as historically isolationist, all of its wars as ones of self-defense, and its expansion across the continent as a peaceful inevitability. Along with excellent works by John Lewis Gaddis and Walter McDougall, Kagan argues that the United States, the "Dangerous Nation" has launched wars of its own to achieve its foreign policy goals of expanded across the continent and removing any powerful competitors along the way. A second volume is to come that takes the story of America's expansionist foreign policy into the 20th Century.
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, by Edward Luttwak
Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1979) is a classic account of the way that the Romans defended their empire from centuries of external threats. The Romans provide centuries of information that allow for the testing of various ideas about military strategy. Luttwak now turns to an equally important, but less well known, question: how did the Byzantines preserve their empire for so long? It's a fascinating read for those not just interested in military strategy, but those who want to learn more about the successor to the Roman Empire.