Since I’m The Federalist’s books editor, it’s come to my attention that summer is upon us, and many of you are vacationing or otherwise have a little more time on our hands to read. So we asked our hardy band of Federalist writers for book recommendations. Whether you’re excited about filling up that canvas beach bag you got at the Rose Bowl flea market with paperbacks or looking to fill up your Kindle en route to a cabin in the Ozarks, we’ve got plenty of suggestions for everyone.
Gracy Olmstead: The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin. There are plenty of books out there trying to determine the root cause(s) of the pessimism and populism we’ve seen this election year. But Levin’s contribution to the discussion is exceptional, and well worth the read. In his analysis of modern American life, Levin works to bridge partisan divides and refuses to rely on pat answers, offering instead the thoughtful and nuanced reflections of a man who knows his Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke. If you want to understand why our public discourse has gotten so messy and fractured—and if you want to help fix the problem—consider reading Levin’s book this summer.
Recommended for reading: a generous glass of red wine while sitting on the front porch.
The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. My goal: to read everything Robinson has ever written, or will ever write. The reason for this goes beyond her beautiful writing style and well-crafted prose. It’s not just that her novels are thoughtful, nuanced, and poignant—or that her work hits religious and cultural notes few modern authors ever seem to consider. Beyond all these things, I love Robinson because there are many ways in which I disagree with her, yet, whether on politics or religion, her winsome and thought-provoking arguments cause me to think deeper, and better, than I ever would have without her influence. This latest collection features essays on grace, servanthood, memory, fear, and givenness.
Recommended for reading: sipping a cup of earl grey tea in a coffee shop on a rainy day.
Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. This book doesn’t come out for another month, but I’m already looking forward to it, after reading Big Little Lies and What Alice Forgot last year. Moriarty brings together the crisp, hilarious social commentary of a contemporary Jane Austen with the whodunit mystery twist of an Agatha Christie. She’s also one of the few popular novelists I can think of who writes at length—and well—about moms (or “mums,” since she’s Australian), whether of the working or stay-at-home variety. Moriarty’s mums are refreshingly honest, relatable, and thoughtful: she displays the love, joy, and frantic rhythms that often dominate their lives, while also noting the camaraderie or jealousy that can weave through their relationships. We will see if her newest book matches the sparkle and wit of past offerings.
Recommended for reading: enjoying a glass of sangria while at the beach or beside the pool.
David Harsanyi: As the Brexit campaign awakened my inner anglophile, I began
re-reading Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant trilogy on English history: Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors; Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I; and Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution. For some reason, Brexit also had me thinking Sex Pistols. So I dug up one of my favorite pop culture books ever, Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming. Though Savage’s opus focuses on the rise of punk rock in the 1970s, it’s a book for anyone interested in the working-class politics in the UK.
Other books in the stack this summer are Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, and Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by the incredible Arthur Herman.
Scott Lincicome: The whole Flashman Papers series is (with few exceptions) good fun. It’s bawdy historical fiction, written as the discovered memoirs of a Homer Simpson-esque cad who keeps bumbling his drunken/lascivious way through most of the great historical moments of the British 19th century. Like Homer, he always ends up on top. The books are also thoroughly researched, with plenty of obscure details, so history geeks love them too.
Jayme Metzgar: My general belief is that summer reading should make you happy, so here are a few recent reads I’ve found uplifting or fun. I’m currently halfway through The Wright Brothers, the newest offering from historian David McCullough (published last year). I can’t yet comment on the book as a whole, but McCullough is superb as usual in his warm narrative format, rich with detail. The story itself is remarkable as a triumph of independent ingenuity: two bicycle mechanics from Ohio, never having gone to college, self-financed and self-taught, quietly doing what the scientific establishment had failed to do, and what many said was impossible. This story is a welcome window into a time when America was alive with optimism, enterprising spirit, and old-fashioned work ethic.
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is a Victorian-era novel I discovered only a few years ago. (I know what you’re thinking, but it has nothing to do with Patrick Swayze in a Confederate uniform.) Somehow, despite a steady diet of Brit lit, I had missed this gem. It has many of the qualities that make Jane Austen endearing: a strong-yet-flawed heroine who matures throughout the course of the story, an enigmatic-yet-principled hero, and a romance with all sorts of delicious tension. But besides all this, there are fascinating threads of social commentary, political philosophy, and Christian doctrine woven through the book. If you’re an audiobook fan, British actress Juliet Stevenson does a fantastic job of making this story—and every regional accent—come alive.
Two years ago, a friend lent me a copy of Leave it to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse, which I brought along on vacation. Throughout that week, my family was regaled with the music of my continual giggles, snickers, and chortles, which undoubtedly gave them joy. I was familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves but had never met the lesser-known Psmith (the p is silent), and I enjoyed this silly half-mystery, half-romance immensely. Of course, what makes the book is Wodehouse’s inimitable prose. When a certain poet goes missing, the narrator muses: “It might cause Lord Emsworth a momentary pang when he returned to the smoking-room and found that he was a poet short, but what is that in these modern days when poets are so plentiful that it is almost impossible to fling a brick in any public place without damaging some stern young singer?”
Speaking of enjoyable half-mysteries, I never miss a chance to recommend Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, along with its many sequels. Set in Botswana, these stories always center on a mystery being solved by Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of said detective agency. But the series is far more driven by the well-drawn characters and the author’s gentle, humorous, and poignant observations on human nature. As someone who has never traveled to Africa (and now has it on her bucket list), this region of the world, its culture, and its people were a revelation to me. It’s good to get a glimpse of the continent that goes beyond wars and famines, focusing instead on the travails of a tiny white van, pumpkin as a regular diet staple, a secretary’s obsession with shoes, and above all things, red bush tea.
John Davidson: No summer reading list would be complete without Shelby Foote’s narrative trilogy on the American Civil War. These books are at once a detailed history of the war and a profound literary achievement. Students of American history could ask for no better guide to the cataclysm of the Civil War than Foote, whose deep knowledge and genuine sympathy for historical figures and peoples on both sides of the conflict steadies his hand and sharpens his eye. And what better time to immerse yourself in the war between the states than right now, when the country once again seems to be coming apart? Not for nothing, at about 1,000 pages per volume, the trilogy will last you all summer, and might even carry you to Election Day in November.
Keeping with the theme of American turmoil and conflict, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition recounts the story of Benedict Arnold, George Washington, and the darkest days of the American Revolution. Most of us know relatively little about our founding war and the men who fought it, nor do we realize how close they came to losing. Too often, our Founders and their contemporaries are, for us, frozen in marble. Philbrick makes them come alive, weaving a tale of intrigue and treachery that reminds us how ambition, avarice, and delusion afflict people of every age, not just our own.
Joy Pullmann: My husband took a Shakespeare and politics class in his last semester of graduate school, so to discuss it with him I started rereading and filling in the portions I’ve missed of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. William Shakespeare is perfect summer reading, especially for a busy mom like me. Compared to a novel or nonfiction tome, the plays are quite short, and easy to digest in 15-minute bursts—although I find 45-minute readings optimal because you can sink into the groove of his language.
For people with even shorter attention spans, the sonnets are perfectly bite-size and perfectly beautiful. I’ve also switched between reading on paper and listening to audiobooks from my library in which actors vocalize the plays with sound effects. For “Richard II,” I even watched a movie. The great thing about Shakespeare is that he’s been done in so many forms. You can try them all or suit yourself.
If you don’t already own a Shakespeare compendium, or just want something small and light for toting around to the pool (or, in my case, kiddie splashpads), the Folger editions are cheap and of good quality, with translations and explanations of terms on the left page and the play itself on the right. I actually found it easier to just read through and only look up utterly confusing passages rather than every strange word, because for most of them you can get a better sense of what Shakespeare means through context.
While so far this year I’ve worked my way through “Julius Caesar,” “The Tempest,” “King Lear,” and “Richard II,” I’m most lately finding “Romeo and Juliet” very apropos. It’s been a long time since I read the saga last, and this time around I’m doing a very different read. The lovers seem much more foolish than “star-crossed,” and the play itself a sort of tragic comedy, in which two rash, passion-driven young people with little adult guidance end up killing themselves. This time around I’m not so sure their environment is as much to blame as themselves. No matter what you think of that, it’s sure good material for a conversation over sangria and a backyard fire.
Bethany Mandel: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—This was a beautifully written page turner. I’ve been reading a lot of education theory lately as I prepare to get my mind into gear for homeschooling, and this novel was a welcome diversion. It won a lot of awards and accolades, and it turns out, for good reason.
Mind to Mind by Karen Glass—I’ve been into the Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and have decided to homeschool according to her teachings. This was an easy book to read about her thoughts on pedagogy and helpfully frames how we hope to educate our children.
Megan Oprea: Although numerous volumes have been written about the great statesman Winston Churchill, few authors have noted the tremendous influence of his wife, Clementine, on his life, career, and successes. In fact, few have mentioned her at all. Thankfully that changed last year with the publishing of Sonia Purnell’s biography Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill.
In her book, Purnell utilizes hundreds of letters and telegraphs between Clementine and Winston to help demonstrate the love and respect they had for another, as well as the strains that his larger than life personality put on her. Devoted to his career, Clementine spent most of her energy greasing the wheels of society and creating a home environment that pleased Winston (he was used to a life of luxury despite their financial troubles) and facilitated constant entertaining of government officials foreign and domestic. She was widely regarded as the only person who could stand up to him and challenge him on his policy decisions, to which she was privy to an unprecedented extent. But more importantly, he listened to her and relied on her implicitly. This book not only introduces us to Clementine and her remarkable life, but gives us new insight into Winston Churchill.
Stella Morabito: Jacques Ellul’s 1965 classic Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes reads like an expose on how groupthink evolves. His insights, for the most part, are remarkably applicable to today. If you’re interested in figuring out how cult-like intolerance for independent thought evolves—and all open-minded social observers should be—Ellul’s book is chock full of connected dots. In clinical fashion, he lays out the features of propaganda, the conditions it requires to be effective (especially unawareness of it) and the toxic psychological effects it has on whole societies, and on us as individuals.
Here are a few of my takeaways: Conformity of thought is the big prize of power elites who use propaganda as the prime instrument for achieving that conformity. Propaganda is inherently anti-democratic because it is at odds with independent thought. Since it is a process intended to agitate people through psychological manipulation, it is also deceptive by nature. Those who think they are immune from propaganda are likely the most susceptible to it.
Reading this book is an intense experience. Most frightening is the fact that propaganda as mind rape is inevitable, especially in any technologically advanced society. But we must confront that prospect directly if we are going to disrupt propaganda’s noxious effects on human freedom. The answer, I believe, lies in this most poignant line of Ellul’s: “Propaganda ends where simple dialogue begins.”
Daniel Payne: Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is perhaps the most remarkable and captivating biography of the past decade. Most Americans are only aware of Washington as the fussy-looking old statesman on the $1 bill, as the semi-mythical “Father of His Country,” or (at least in the academy) as a racist old slaveowner who deserves to be forgotten.
Washington’s greatest moral failing, slavery, is certainly well-studied in this book, but so are the other aspects of the man: Washington as the ambitious young general looking to climb the ranks of colonial Virginia society, as the fiery revolutionary who fought and sometimes half-stumbled his way through the greatest political rebellion in human history, as the cautious, pragmatic, revered first president of the newly minted United States, as the shameless flirt who scrupulously wrote down the number of ladies he danced with at every party and late-night festival. Even before his death Washington had already become a quasi-divine Man of Legend, often more apocryphal than real, but this book presents him as authentically human: brave, likable, inspiring, deeply flawed, both self-interested and selfless, and, above all, perfect for both the political moment of which he was a part the new country he helped found.
Mark Hemingway: I’m continually amazed that nearly all of the books and films that take on D.C. politics are so terrible. The tendency is to treat politics as simplistic or idealistic or both. (Aaron Sorkin is a great writer, but I almost want to punch the guy in the throat for making an entire generation believe powerbrokers in D.C., let alone those inside the West Wing, actually care about them.) Thankfully, I recently found a signed first edition of Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold for ten bucks—score!—and snatched it up. The book is the perhaps best Washington satire written by someone not named Christopher Buckley. It’s also a comedy of Jewish manners and arguably Heller’s best book after Catch-22. Good As Gold is nearly 40 years-old and dated in key respects, but perfectly captures the strain of relentlessly petty narcissism that drives so many politicos.
Speaking of Christopher Buckley, his recent collection of essays and reviews, But Enough About You strikes a lovely balance between edifying and amusing. It is perfect summer reading in that respect. I also plan to read Buckley’s most recent novel, The Relic Master, where the author forgoes his usual Washington D.C. setting to write a satire that takes place in Germany during the reformation. As a big Buckley fan and a Lutheran, it feels like he wrote this one just for me.
It took me almost a decade to get around to reading it, but I finally read my Weekly Standard colleague Andrew Ferguson’s book, Land of Lincoln. Part travelogue, part history, it’s an attempt to understand Lincoln’s enduring legacy and our ongoing fascination with a man whose motivations we can’t possibly understand. I presume Andy’s reputation proceeds him, so if you’re expecting a book that’s breezy and hilarious you won’t be disappointed. However, LOL also manages to be a pretty profound commentary on the fact that our obsession with Lincoln often provides more insight into our own selfish age than the life and times of The Great Emancipator.
Because I went to the University of Oregon where the movie was filmed, and because I have Y chromosome, I’ve always been fascinated by Animal House. So I recently read The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie by Animal House screenwriter Chris Miller. I suspect it’s pretty loose with the facts as memoirs go, and let me tell you, “depraved” doesn’t begin to cover it. (Seriously, if you’re thinking about reading this, you’ve been warned.) But aside from being entertaining, it’s an incredible window into the youth of the late 1950s and early ’60s, as well as campus life before hippies ruined everything. If I have to pick my future leaders between a group of depraved beer-swilling louts and today’s safe-space social justice Jacobins, I’ll take the crew that can boot and rally any day.
Finally, I’m going to recommend another book I plan on reading because two of the smartest women I know have been raving about it. (These women being my wife and the maid-of-honor at our wedding, who is also a professional writer of some note.) The better half keeps telling me I need to read Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy, starting with My Brilliant Friend, because the books are outstanding literature and incredibly insightful into the inner lives and needs of women. I’m at a total loss as to why my wife thinks I need to understand the female psyche better than I obviously do, but hey, happy wife happy life.
Anyhow, this should fill your quota of beach reads and then some. No summer afternoon is complete without a book, and if I can be the kind of pretentious jerk who quotes Henry James for a moment, “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”