We know you’re busy pulling the decorations out of the attic and getting all the last-minute shopping out of the way, but it’s best that we not let the hectic nature of the holiday season overcome us. To that end, we suggest lighting a fire, heating up a warm, spiced drink, and finding some quiet time to curl up with a good book.
This is The Federalist’s third annual list of notable books, as judged by The Federalist’s esteemed staff and contributors. Bear in mind that, once again, our reading habits don’t follow calendars, so this is not necessarily a list of books that came out this year. Rather it’s a list of books that, for one reason or another, Federalist writers happened to read in 2017 and judged worthy of recommending.
Grant by Ron Chernow—In this sweeping biography, the author responsible for reintroducing the masses to Alexander Hamilton delivered what is possibly an even better volume on our eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s reputation, both as a president and a general, has seen greater ups and downs than any major American historical figure. A century ago, he was reviled as a drunkard and a mediocrity, a butcher in battle, a bumbler in office. Over the years since Grant’s historical standing reached its nadir, he his risen in the eyes of his biographers and their readers. In Chernow’s readable and thorough book he may, at last, be properly appreciated.
That said, the book is not a hagiography. Chernow addresses Grant’s greatest weakness—his drinking problem—head-on, with a more modern, sympathetic eye than earlier biographers, or Grant’s own contemporaries. In doing so, he relates the tale of a man overcoming his personal faults and some unfortunate turns of luck to become the triumphant military leader of the Civil War. The transition to civilian life and politician leadership held its own pitfalls, some of which Grant avoided, others of which he returned to again and again. At the end of his life, Grant served up another improbable twist, becoming (posthumously) a bestselling author. Chernow guides the reader though the meanderings of Grant’s uniquely American life in a well-researched, engagingly written biography.
Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans—The former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London penned this entertaining guide to writing, which was released earlier this year. This New York Times best seller and a choice of NPR for Best Books of 2017, offers suggestions and illustrations that will benefit both the professional writer and the professional who must write. An added bonus from Sir Evans’ work? A glimpse inside the elitist bubble where the liberal media resides unaware: “Fog in the U.S. Supreme Court, where five judges in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) sanctified secret bribery as freedom of speech;” “The people who attended Donald Trump’s rallies said they loved the way ‘he told it like it is,’ which was about the last thing he did;” “In the summer of 2014, Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement, fought seven weeks over the Gaza Strip.” But bias aside, Evans can write like few in the trade and offers much to those looking to hone their skills.
The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom-America and China by John Pomfret—This remarkable book covers the history of the relationship between the United States and China from 1776 until the present day. This book shows the two countries have been intimately involved with each other through trade, cultural exchange and political maneuvers for more than two centuries. Yet, after such a long term interaction, there’s still a notable amount of misinformation and mistrust between the two nations. Many disputes or conflicts between the two nations now can trace their roots way back.
For example, when I was growing up in China, I was taught foreign missionary workers, including those from America, were imperialists in disguise and had done many evil things in China like rape women and kill babies. This narrative sowed some Chinese people’s distrust and hostility towards foreign missionary workers, which partially contributed to the Boxer movement. Some of the distrust still exists today. But this book provides plenty of credible evidence to show that many American missionary workers truly loved China and have devoted their lives to making China better by establishing schools, hospitals, and helping young women get educated. In fact, the best known Universities and hospitals in China today were founded by American missionary workers.
Like any other relationship, the relations between the U.S. and China has had plenty of ups and downs. Both countries have had high expectations of the other and both at times failed to live up to their promises. People and policy makers from both countries will learn a lot from reading this book. How the U.S. and China relationship will shape up under new leaders of both countries will have great impact on world affairs. The lessons we learn from the past will help shape the future.
1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman—Anything Herman writes is worth reading, but 1917 packs a special kind of relevance as it tells the story of two giants whose influence still shape the contours of our world.
The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers—Though I’m generally skeptical any new history on Nazism will tell us much we don’t already know, Childers’ book turned out to be a surprisingly fresh read, shining more light on one of our darkest eras.
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper—The Fate of Rome convincingly places ecology and malady at the center of the fall of the empire, making the case that Mother Nature, as much as any Germanic tribe or moral decay, was responsible for bringing down Rome.
Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen—As a biography goes, Charles Leerhsen’s portrait of Cobb is a formidable look at baseball’s most infamous figures. What makes it unique, though, is that it reverse-engineers the well-worn myth of Cobb as incorrigible racist and hothead.
Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan—Though Hagan’s treatment of his topic can get a bit too reverential for my taste, Sticky Fingers is a wonderful look at an era when print magazines mattered and rock stars were royalty.
The Living Torah: The Five Books of Moses and the Haftarot by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan—Every week for an entire year, Jews read a portion of the Torah—the Old Testament—from start to finish, breaking the book into portions. Every year, I swear that I’m going to read the weekly Torah portion, and every year for literally my entire adult life, I have failed. When we restarted the cycle this year, on a holiday called Simchat Torah (or joy of the Torah), I decided to give it a serious try. This book gives you a readable translation with insights, maps and more. I read it every week and listen to the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks podcast of insight and introspection.
Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived by Antonin Scalia, edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan—The definitive collection of the late justice’s speeches, this book is a necessary read for anyone interested in American public life, or indeed anyone interested in living or thinking well. Antonin Scalia wrote his legal opinions in a very readable way—that’s why they’ll still be read in law schools, majority opinions and dissents both, decades from now—but still he recognized that few non-lawyers would read them and so engaged the larger world. Very few of the speeches in this book are about the law, and even there they’re accessible and engaging. Instead, the learned man of wide interests and appetites presents his thoughts on how to live life to the fullest, with honor, conviction, and good humor.
How the Right Lost Its Mind by Charlie Sykes—Sykes was on top of the talk-radio world—a lucrative and influential place to be—but then the 2016 political tsunami happened. A leading Never Trumper (in a state, Wisconsin, that went for Cruz in the primaries), Sykes maintains his criticism of the president but, more interestingly than that, diagnoses problems in the conservative movement that the Right is still very much grappling with. While some of Donald Trump’s Republican political critics now sound no different from the Democrats or even the Resistance (but I repeat myself), Sykes is instead a leader of the loyal opposition.
As Time Goes By by Michael Walsh—This year marked the 75th anniversary of Casablanca, my favorite movie, so it was appropriate that it took me until 2017 to discover this gem of a “sequel,” which screenwriter and media critic Walsh wrote nearly 20 years ago. A good read, plausible, thought-provoking, and not cloying like so much “fan fiction.”
Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan by Henry Nau—Lately, it’s not uncommon to hear remarks about how the world is more unstable than it has been since the decade following the end of World War II, that a major conflict could be just around the corner, that with the rise of revanchist China and Russia we will again see the resurgence of great power rivalries. In this context, we should consider a closer examination of America’s presuppositions about grand strategy, about how we view America’s role in the world, what the United States’ goal should be abroad, and how, exactly, we aim to attain those goals.
For an examination of these topics, it’s worth turning to Nau’s 2013 book. Nau, a professor of political science at George Washington University, writes that there are traditionally thought to be only three approaches to foreign policy in America: nationalism, realism, and liberal internationalism. But he argues that there is a fourth— conservative internationalism—which “combines the commitment of liberal internationalism to spread democracy and make the world a better place with the instruments of realism to back up diplomacy with military force.”
Before going on to trace the history of conservative internationalism through the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan, Nau examines what essentially sets conservative internationalism apart from the other traditions, and why, in his opinion, it’s the preferable strategy. Three basic tenets underpin this foreign policy tradition. The first is that while conservative internationalists believe that freedom and democracy are ideal forms of governance, they also believe America should prioritize encouraging such developments in countries that border established free societies, like eastern Europe, Mexico and South Korea.
Second, Nau argues that sometimes using force earlier can prevent a conflict from evolving into a larger-scale conflagration. As such, force should not always be considered a last resort. Finally, and relatedly, diplomacy only works if it is done alongside and in cooperation with military force. Often, military force is only pursued once diplomacy has failed. Conservative internationalists, by contrast, see force as a way to demonstrate resolve and narrow “the maneuvering room of authoritarian opponents outside negotiations” in order to provide “bargaining chips to conclude favorable deals inside negotiations.”
At a time when Iran is fighting for regional hegemony, Russia is looking to take back its sphere of influence in eastern Europe as well as the Middle East, China is asserting itself in the South China Sea, and North Korea is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power, Nau offers valuable insight into how America should handle these conflicts.
America can’t seem to get enough out of race relations and relitigating the Civil War these days. The battle for the historical narrative has lit up the internet just as it the did the nation’s (revisionist) history departments in the 1930s. It’s tough to have a novel theory about an issue as exhaustively and obsessively covered as the Civil War. Yet Carl Paulus, a speechwriter with a doctorate in history from Rice University, has managed to do just that in The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War. Paulus explores the dispute over slavery by examining regional attitudes about American Exceptionalism—a mantle both sides set out to define and claim. At its core, the eventual insurrectionists could not see a providential City on Hill without racial hierarchy—a hierarchy grounded in fear of insurrection from the inhuman chattel shipped to the U.S. in chains. Fear, it turns out, makes you do stupid things; think “starting civil wars.”
Paulus’ history goes beyond the major historical figures we still recognize today and explores the bit players who were essential to southern myth-making.Edmund Ruffin, in many ways, was just as essential to what became the Confederacy as Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. Paulus’ focus on the South’s perception of status is a fresh approach, recalling that most expert of documentarians, Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s most recent fiction was entitled Back to Blood, a 2012 novel illustrating Wolfe’s thesis that a Americans would resort to racial solidarity—and its byproduct racial animosity—as a way to resolve its identity crisis in a post-Christian world. Paulus shows us what that world will look like when it comes to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.
The New Brooklyn:What it Takes to Bring Back a City by Kay Hymowitz—For denizens or lovers of the Borough of Homes and Churches, Hymowitz’s book is a pure delight. It reveals in fun and often surprising detail the history of the streets and buildings of what on its own would be our nation’s third largest city, and what in the last few decades has become its greatest urban success story.
But even for those who don’t root for the Nets, eat at L&B Spumoni Gardens, or sip cocktails at Union Pool, Hymowitz’s book is tremendous work on the controversial subject of gentrification. Brooklyn is in many ways ground zero for gentrification and the argument that it displaces poor and minority citizens replacing them with annoying avocado toast-munching young white professionals. But the story is much more complicated. Taking deep dives into exactly what happened in several Brooklyn neighborhoods, Hymowitz acknowledges that people are in fact displaced, but argues persuasively, that the alternative would be much worse for everyone.
Somalis In The Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destination by Stefanie Chambers—Regardless of where one stands on the issue of the president’s travel ban, the fact is that the United States is already home to large and vibrant Muslim communities and will be for a long time. In her book, Chambers, a political scientist at Trinity College, takes a hard and well-researched look at the conditions of one of these Muslim immigrant and refugee groups. While in Minnesota Somalis have spread political roots and integrated more successfully, in Ohio, such success has been harder to come by. This is owing to a combination of electoral and philanthropic factors, which Chambers pins down and examines in detail. At a time when Muslim and refugee immigration is such a hot button issue, such cold and calculated analysis is needed and welcome in examining how these communities can thrive and become stable parts of the ever-changing American political and social landscape.
Taking My Life Back: My Story of Faith, Determination, and Surviving the Boston Marathon Bombing by Rebekah Gregory—Gregory tells the emotional story of losing her left leg, but surviving the Boston Marathon Bombing with her 5-year-old son Noah, and learning to trust in God again “with every part of our lives—the good, the bad, and even the terrifying.” I had the honor of meeting Gregory earlier this year at The Steamboat Institute’s annual conference, and am still in awe of her beauty, her strength, and her resilience. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and most importantly, you’ll be inspired.
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher—The past year saw the publication of several books that grappled with the state of Christianity in America and posited ways to survive, and even flourish, in a post-Christian society. The most popular of these is The Benedict Option, the title of which serves as a useful shorthand for Dreher’s thesis: if Christianity is to survive in the West, Christians need to radically change how they practice their faith, and they need to start now.
Protestant churches need to adopt liturgical forms of worship. Parents need to pull their kids out of public schools—and most Christian schools for that matter. Families should consider forming actual communities of faith, in which everyone lives on the same street and shares some kind of communal life centered on Christian practices.
Whatever your denomination, you should start running your household like a monastery. Dreher calls all of this the Benedict Option, which is catchy but also misleading. The gist of Dreher’s argument is that American Christians will soon find themselves an unwanted and persecuted minority in an aggressively secular nation, and that the only form of faith that’s going to be passed on to future generations of American Christians is one that’s anchored in ancient Christian traditions and lived out intentionally, in community, and set apart from the main stream of society.
Of course, this was always going to be true about America sooner or later. The long détente between church and state in America was never going to last forever, and when it at last breaks down, Christians will return to what is a more historical norm. As the number of Christians dwindles, the ones who remain will tend to be those who are rather more strident about their faith—people for whom the Benedict Option is neither Benedictine nor optional, to paraphrase one reviewer.
Alexis de Tocqueville went one step further than Dreher, predicting that in a thoroughly democratic age, future generations “will tend more and more to a division into only two parts, some relinquishing Christianity entirely and others returning to the Church of Rome.” (NB: I recently reviewed “The Benedict Option” for The Claremont Review of Books, along with three other fine books on the same theme: “Out of the Ashes,” by Anthony Esolen, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” by Charles Chaput, and “Resurrecting the idea of a Christian Society,” by R.R. Reno. Of these, Esolen’s is by far the most vociferous, and hence the most fun to read.)
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth—Roth was born in 1894 in Galicia, a crown land of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that straddled what today is the border between Poland and Ukraine. He served in the Hapsburg army during the First World War and then worked as journalist throughout Europe, wrote more than a dozen novels in Paris and died there, a destitute alcoholic, in 1939. In other words, he was born into Europe’s belle époque and lived just long enough to see it all collapse.
The Radetzky March is perhaps his best-known work. First published in 1932, it recounts the saga of four generations of the Trotta family, following their fortunes through the Austro-Hungarian Empire up to the eve of World War One. The novel is a nostalgic yet deeply moving portrait of a decaying civilization. Its genius lies in Roth’s sympathetic depiction of the protagonist, young Carl Joseph von Trotta, a lost soul who drinks, gambles, and gets tangled up in hopeless dead-end love affairs. Yet Carl Joseph longs for the beauty and certainty of a time that’s already gone, and feels a special affection for the Hapsburgs.
Early in the book, Roth describes Carl Joseph’s romantic and tragic patriotism as he listens to The Radetzky March: “He felt slightly related to the Hapsburgs, whose might his father represented and defended here and for whom he himself would some day go off to war and death. He knew the names of all the members of the Imperial Royal House. He loved them all sincerely, with a child’s devoted heart—more than anyone else the Kaiser, who was kind and great, sublime and just, infinitely remote and very close, and particularly fond of the officers in the army. It would be best to die for him amid military music, easiest with ‘The Radetzky March.’”
Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning by Nancy Pearcey—I’ve had Pearcey’s book on my shelf since it came out in 2010 and had dipped in and out of it enough to know it was good. But it wasn’t until recently I started seriously reading it and I realized just how good and useful the book really is. The book covers a lot of ground in describing the pernicious philosophical aspects of culture, referencing everything from Aristotle to David Cronenberg movies along the way. However, that makes the book sound more pretentious than it is. It’s really a broad instruction manual for Christians seeking to “decode” pop culture and extract useful lessons from it while identifying and rejecting the harmful messages pop culture simultaneously bombards us with. And as Pearcey notes, developing a finely tuned moral radar is an especially important aspect of parenting these days, as it’s crucial for both teaching your kids to protect themselves from unhealthy ideas and ultimately passing on your values at a time when so many well-intentioned parents are failing to keep their kids from slipping into secularism.
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch—While we’re on the subject of parenting, there aren’t many subjects these days seems to worry parents more than how to teach their kids how to cope in a world bedeviled by smart phones and social media. Even more worrisome is the fact that a lot of parents still remain ignorant of the growing and definitive body of evidence that technology and screen time represent a dire threat to their child’s development and mental health, to say nothing of the damage it wreaks on adults. “It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are,” a former Facebook VP recently said. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”
Crouch’s book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is sufficiently alarmist and is full of great suggestions for parents looking to develop their own strategies for teaching kids the value of technological moderation.
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford—This book is best remembered as the source for the eponymous 1990 cult movie, starring Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward. There’s not much to say about the plot except to say that it’s straight-ahead pulp about a cop with a disastrous personal life methodically tracking down a sociopathic ex-con who has teamed up with a 19 year-old prostitute to go on a crime spree. Very subtle mordant humor abounds, the backdrop of 1980s Miami is expertly observed, and there’s not a false tonal note or plot misstep in the book. I knew Willeford had a reputation as a crimewriter’s crimewriter, but this might be the finest Florida crime novel ever written. When you consider this is territory also well-mined by Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald, that is saying something.
Smiling Through the Apocalypse by the editors of Esquire—Perhaps no other publication was as present at the creation of the “new journalism” in the 60s and 70s as Esquire. The amount of groundbreaking essays and reportage the magazine published in a decade or so is simply remarkable, and all of the better known pieces can be found in this one book: Wolfe’s “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake…”; Bellow’s “Literary Notes on Khrushchev”; Mailer’s “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”; Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”; Buckley and Vidal’s dueling essays after their famously confrontational debate.
Those immortal pieces more than justify the existence of the book. But the lesser known pieces from the era in the 590 page book are almost as eye-opening, such as Charles and Bonnie Remburg’s story about a family with nine kids in smalltown Illinois that wins a contest sponsored by Pepsi where they get to keep all of the food they can carry out of a grocery story in one day. The story may be over 50 years old, but it remains a very perceptive and extremely well-crafted observation of consumer excesses that still plague us today. In the end, the book serves a depressing reminder that dying art of magazine journalism was just a generation ago the apotheosis of American literary culture.
Well, that’s it for this year’s recommendations. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and thanks for reading The Federalist in 2017.