The end of the year will soon be upon us, and with luck, your holiday break will include some time to hunker down and read. Fortunately, it’s that time where the staff and contributors to The Federalist take stock of what they read this year and offer recommendations.
As always, we know that reading habits don’t correspond to the schedules of publishing houses, so unlike other year-end lists we haven’t relegated ourselves to just books that came out in the last year. So without further adieu, here are the books that we found worthy and compelling.
Beirut Rules: The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah’s War Against America, by Fred Burton and Samuel Katz—Burton and Katz tell the story of the abduction and murder of former CIA Beirut station chief William Francis Buckley, and detail the myriad American foreign policy failures that led to it and paved the way for decades of assassinations, bombings, and abductions.
Readers who view the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack, and the U.S. government’s feckless response to it, as an aberration rather than just the latest in a continuous string of horrific attacks on U.S. installations and personnel will quickly learn from this book that the United States and its allies have been outmaneuvered by terrorist factions such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and especially Iran—Hezbollah’s state sponsor—for nearly 50 years.
From the bombing of our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, to the abduction and assassination of a CIA station chief, to the Khobar towers bombing, to the U.S.S. Cole, to the 9/11 attacks, America has been fighting and losing the war against terrorist organizations for too long. Hopefully, the history detailed in Beirut Rules will lead current and future policy makers to understand that they must change their tactics and confront terrorist organizations and their nation-state sponsors head on, or accept defeat and the senseless American and allied deaths that come with it.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou—This is the nearly unbelievable story of Elizabeth Holmes, a wannabe Steve Jobs turned compulsive liar, and her Silicon Valley biotech start up that was supposed to change the world. In fact, it’s so unbelievable that my mother in law texted me after I had recommended it to her, asking, “Is this a true story??”
Holmes raised billions of dollars and the support of the biggest names in technology and medicine, without ever presenting a single piece of working propriety technology. I walked away both in awe of her, and wanting her to be put behind bars.
Carreyrou is the Wall Street Journal reporter who first discovered Holmes’ webs of lies and fought her impressive legal team to untangle it. He switches to telling the story in first person for the later half of the book, allowing the reader to follow along his journey to uncover the insanity and the company’s simultaneous combustion.
Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James—The title makes this book sound gruesome, but I assure you that James’ dry sense of humor and matter-of-fact narration makes the reader feel more informed and entertained by abductions and murders than queasy. James is trying to get to the bottom of why we are all so obsessed with crime. Why are the most-watched television shows, most listened-to podcasts, and most talked-about news stories all about crazy, violent, or mysterious crimes? And what role does the media play in this cultural phenomenon?
James has read thousands of crime stories, including multiple books written about the same crime. Popular Crime is his way of distilling all that information, using his scientific approach and razor-sharp empiricism, to explain the cultural significance, and sometimes to offer his non-expert verdict when the jury is out.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates—For whatever reason, I’ve gotten into mid-20th century American fiction, and Revolutionary Road tells the haunting story of the unraveling of a 1950s marriage. The suburban couple—a creative man stuffing himself into a gray flannel suit and his failed-actress housewife—make the incredible decision to move to Paris. Then they step back from that liberating edge, to disastrous consequences. I read the book after I saw the 2008 movie, which started Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Engrossing prose, great acting. Recommend experiencing both.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth—Published in 1997 but hearkening to an earlier time, we learn through flashbacks and a not-always-reliable narrator about a star high school athlete (Jewish) who marries a beauty queen (gentile) and lives happily ever after until their daughter joins a radical student group, blows up some people, and goes into hiding. If you’ve never read Roth, this is a good way to start. At least that’s what the Chicago used bookstore proprietor told me.
The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition by James Mathew Wilson—Why is western civilization in a state of decay? A recent volume by James Matthew Wilson aims to answer that question and propose a remedy. Wilson is a poet, professor of religion and literature at Villanova University, and the poetry editor at Modern Age magazine, and his book, “The Vision of the Soul,” is an attempt to establish firm philosophical ground for a robust modern conservatism that can serve as an alternative to the ascendant liberal order.
Unlike other recent books with more or less the same purpose, Wilson is at pains to make clear that by “conservatism” he does not mean the conservative movement or conservative politics, much less something as ephemeral as the Republican Party. A crucial part of his thesis is that conservatism is fundamentally a literary movement, not a political one, and that if we’re going to recover a sense of true conservatism in our liberal age, we need to get serious about things like beauty and goodness. For starters, we at least need to get over the notion that conservatism is primarily a set of political principles derived from the writings of John Locke.
For Wilson, the point of conservatism isn’t merely to oppose liberalism or slow the march of scientific rationalism, the point is to apprehend and preserve a vision of the Good. He delves into the Christian Platonist tradition and the writings of Pseudo-Dionysus, among many others, to argue that authentic conservatism must be revived through art, and not just any art but beautiful art that has the power to reveal a higher reality and elevate us to a vision of the divine. Reasserting the importance of the fine arts in particular is crucial, writes Wilson, “not because of its isolation from society or politics, but because it attunes us, awakens and habituates us, to the perception of the ordered whole of reality.”
The point of the fine arts, or any art, should be to manifest beauty, which “reveals not simply our creaturely yearning for God, but our existential participation in him.” If the Enlightenment ushered in a rationalistic era “that knows nothing of the heart’s much less of the intellect’s higher aspirations,” Wilson believes we’re only going to find our way out of it by awakening those higher aspirations through the cultivation and the apprehension of beauty in every part of our lives. His book is dense and can at times be recondite and abstract, but his argument is one every conservative should take to heart.
The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism by Thomas Joseph White, OP—“We cannot love what we do not know,” said Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, in a recent interview. His latest book, The Light of Christ, is an overview of Catholicism intended for a broad audience with common questions. Is faith in divine revelation reasonable? Are faith and science compatible? How should I think about traditional Catholic moral teaching?
Fr. White, a associate professor of systematic theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., has written two books on Thomistic theology, and he brings a Thomist’s focus on the reasonableness of faith to this new, highly readable volume. He straightforwardly walks the reader through major questions about our knowledge of God, the Trinity, the incarnation and the sacraments, all written in a contemporary but authoritative style.
In composing this introduction to the Catholic faith, Fr. White has done the world a great service, essentially giving us a primer on the theology and thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman in language that is decidedly contemporary. That is, you don’t have to be a theologian—or a Catholic—to understand and learn a great deal from this book. In his introduction, Fr. White writes, “My goal is to make explicit in a few broad strokes the shape of Catholicism. I hope to outline its inherent intelligibility or form as a mystery that is at once visible and invisible, ancient and contemporary, mystical and reasonable.”
Breaking Rockefeller: The Incredible Story of the Ambitious Rivals Who Toppled an Oil Empire by Peter Doran—My friend Doran has written a fascinating book, which shows how Rockefeller got so rich from the breakup of Standard Oil—perceived, at the time, as having damaged him—that he essentially became untouchable.
Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman—Another good book about robber barons, and specifically how their families went around one-upping each other trying to fill their new money American mansions with old European art.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Conceivability: What I Learned Exploring the Frontiers of Fertility by Elizabeth Katkin—The book I found most eye-opening and worth reading this year is one I previously reviewed for The Federalist. Infertility memoirs may sound like inside baseball to many people, but Katkin’s should matter to every thinking American and especially to every conservative. Katkin’s experiences, research, and anecdotes shed light on the global fertility industry, as well as the countless bioethical questions raised by this Wild West of science.
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes—The mass hysterics surrounding Russia these days induced me to re-read two of historian Figes’ wonderful books on the country.
The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s by William I. Hitchcock—This is a good history that revisits a more innocent era.
The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole—Although far too apologetic towards the sins of our worst president, The Moralist is an excellent overview of his puritanical determination and influence.
Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson and Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee—If you’re interested in science fiction, both of these books are worth your time.
Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child by James Breakwell—Not only is this a very funny book, it’s also a pretty effective critique of contemporary over-parenting.
To Heal the World?: How The Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel by Jonathan Neumann—This year, Neumann wrote an important—and long overdue—book detailing the American left’s systematic and deliberate undermining of Jewish tradition and belief.
Hunting Eichman: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb—A fast-moving novelistic history about the daring capture of the notorious Nazi, Hunting Eichman is probably the best thing I’ve read all year
Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by Norm MacDonald—MacDonald took his assignment of “Former SNL cast member writes another memoir” and created something truly remarkable. The book is a collection of tales from Norm’s past—to the best of his recollection.
While the stories begin with a scream for fact checking, it is ultimately Norm’s ability to enchant with his version of reality that keeps the reader engaged. The stories range from seemingly benign to flirtation with the supernatural, but all succeed in making readers laugh until they fall down. Whether Norm’s oft-mentioned friends and colleagues remember his version of events in the same way is unlikely, but this version is well worth the time for fans of Norm’s comedy.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown—This book is a compelling retelling of the United States 1936 Olympic rowing team. The story jumps back and forth between the evolution of the Nazi party during the mid-thirties in Berlin, and the circumstances surrounding the young men who were to row as representatives of the United States.
The book overflows with spirit and purpose, particularly in the harsh revelations of their individual pasts, as they grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. The book serves as a beautiful tribute, not just to the gold medal-winning team of 1936, but to the sport of rowing, and to the spirit of Americans in the face of oppression and conflict. Many moments will have the reader stand up and cheer.
Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon—A tiny bit reminiscent of Patti Smith’s Just Kids in both style and topic, Girl In A Band details the early history of legendary rockers Sonic Youth, Gordon’s own childhood, her turbulent marriage with bandmate Thurston Moore, and Sonic Youth’s breakup.
The book is disjointed and skips around, time-wise, but it focuses in on Gordon’s relationship with her brother, her childhood in Los Angeles in the ’60s (with a brief but fascinating stint in Hong Kong), and the grungy, punk rock-oriented New York of the ’80s. I liked it because I’m a shameless devotee at the altar of Sonic Youth, but also because Gordon writes with candor on her marriage, motherhood (especially in an industry that isn’t exactly friendly to raising a child), her friendship with Kurt Cobain, loneliness, and what it felt like rising to stardom.
Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman—I’ll be frank: I’m not finished with this one, but I am 200 pages in. This is another book with a wholly unconventional format: It’s told in a series of interviews that are woven together to create a sort of stream-of-consciousness read.
It tells the story of the indie rock/rock/alt music scene in the late ’90s and aughts—a time when a lot of people were sort of glum about the future of the New York music scene. The Velvet Underground had already had their heyday, Lou Reed had already been properly venerated, The Ramones had already come and gone. Meet Me In The Bathroom explores the malaise felt by rock musicians who felt like they had missed the moment, been born too late.
It details the rise and fizzle of Jonathan Fire*Eater, the origins of LCD Soundsystem and James Murphy, the rise of The Strokes (which you might guess about, given the name of the book lifted from 2003’s “Room On Fire”), the origins of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s riddled with coke and heroin abuse, and it transports the reader to a time when Williamsburg was considered semi-sketchy (ha!) and an era when Alphabet City still had an awful lot of dope coursing through it. But it also details the end of that, and the shifting of eras, and once-obscure bands being signed to major record labels and relegated (or advanced, depending on how you look at it) to stadium arenas.
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov—This excellent book makes the case that Silicon Valley’s belief there are pragmatic, data-based solutions to every complex moral, political, and social problem is going to create bigger problems than it could ever potentially solve. The validity of this thesis is becoming increasingly obvious, but Morozov deserves some credit for saying this back in 2013 when everyone still regarded the Obama campaign hoovering Facebook’s entire data set as brilliant electioneering, rather than a horrifying sign of things to come.
Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller—I’m not sure anyone has written a book on the confluence of science fiction and pop music before Heller’s book, which came out this year. Suffice to say, both science fiction and rock music emerged as cultural forces at the same time in the ’60s and ’70s and even a dedicated music geek such as myself was surprised to learn that one of Bowie’s early songs was inspired by the short story that gave us Soylent Green, and that the title “Purple Haze” isn’t (entirely) a drug reference, it was lifted from one of the many sci-fi novels Hendrix was reading at the time. Illuminating anecdotes such as these abound, and Strange Stars’ biggest flaw is that at just over 200 pages it isn’t long enough.
The Wishbones by Tom Perotta—The Hollywood adaptions of Perotta’s novels are better known than the novels themselves; he provided the source material for Election, Little Children, and the TV show The Leftovers. The Wishbones is the only Perotta novel I’ve read so far, an entertaining romp about a member of a popular wedding band in New Jersey who is hanging on to his rock and roll dreams and refusing to get on with his life.
While far from perfect (it was Perotta’s first book), it’s exactly the kind of purely entertaining novels that speak to male fears that I wish their were more of. Authors like Updike and Roth are revered for a reason, but there’s something to be said for the male equivalent of chick lit. Maybe the crisis of masculinity would be less of a problem if we read more books that sugarcoat some moralistic lessons about manning-up and accepting responsibility, rather than wallowing in literary ego.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books edited by Charles R. Kesler and John B. Kienker—I spent a good chunk of time in early 2018 plowing through this doorstop compilation of one of America’s most underappreciated publications. Claremont’s work in popularizing the idea that a permanent American administrative state with ideological origins in the late 19th and early 20th century progressive movement is our single biggest impediment to needed political reforms (a.k.a. “Draining the Swamp”) has been tremendously influential. And somehow the assorted authors in Claremont’s orbit seem to address matters of weighty political philosophy in way that is pleasurable enough to make you want to do the heavy intellectual lifting necessary to understand what they’re saying.
Well, that’s a wrap for this year’s reading suggestions. Keep literacy alive, and thanks for reading The Federalist.