Last year around this time, I lamented the end of 2020 with the expectation that better times had to be lurking around the corner. Well, I sincerely hope you had a good year, but it seems like the year was defined by inflation, the Afghanistan debacle, lapsing back into more COVID restrictions, and other disasters.
In other words, it was the second year in a row to retreat into a book and at least forget about day-to-day affairs for a while. With that in mind we bring you The Federalist’s notable books of 2021. Bear in mind, this is not a collection of the best books of 2021 — just a collection of what books Federalist writers and those in our orbit read to cope with another trying year.
In “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” journalist Abigail Shrier offers a compelling and compassionate understanding of the transgender moment. Shining light on the phenomenon of rapid onset gender dysphoria, Shrier exposes the dangers of disinformation feeding a contagion that’s infected young women and girls, with catastrophic consequences.
As the nation grapples with a sudden emergence of widespread gender dysphoria never before seen, erasing women’s sports, presenting dilemmas over private spaces and creating a new generation of the sexually confused, Shrier dissects the moment with an empathy one wouldn’t expect from the hysterical outrage of left-wing opponents. A book they’ve pledged to burn, “Irreversible Damage” is an instant legacy and one of the most important books to explain our cultural crossroads.
Neal Stephenson’s “Termination Shock” might be about a dystopian future shaped by climate change, but it’s also a brilliantly weird and frenetic work of speculative fiction. I wouldn’t say it was a return to form exactly, since all of Stephenson’s books are worthwhile, but the range of subject matter recalls some of his most intellectually exciting books, “Cryptonomicon” and “Seveneves.”
Sean McMeekin’s revisionist “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II” isn’t just one of the most compelling histories written about the war this year, it’s one of the best ever. I doubt anyone who reads it will think about the Second World War in the same way.
I read everything Matt Ridley writes, and “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19” (co-authored with Alina Chan) did not disappoint. Nor did “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe, which is a couple of years old, but a fantastic look at complexities and ugliness of The Troubles, told with the great compassion.
Having written my own book on Europe this year, my energies were focused on the topic. Books like “The Great Deception: The True Story of Britain and the European Union” by Christopher Booker and Richard North, “The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017” by Ian Kershaw. and “The Strange Death of Europe” by Douglas Murray were indispensable.
Other books I quite enjoyed: “The War That Made the Roman Empire: Anthony, Cleopatra and Octavian at Actium” by Barry Strauss, Jay Cost’s “James Madison,” and, yes, “Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion.”
Finally, my guilty pleasure was the discovery of Spike Milligan, whose “Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall” (published in 1971) is hilarious, chaotic, and poignant. I was happy to learn that his autobiographical account of the war has six more volumes.
British historian and professor Geoffrey Parker has been writing about the early Modern world since before most of us were born. While his particular focus tends to be military history, in this biography, “Emperor: A New Life of Charles V” of the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor, Parker somehow manages to turn an enormous, 760- page tome into an absolute page-turner: I simply didn’t want to put it down.
Weaving in threads of diplomacy, politics, economics, warfare, technology, religion, art, architecture, family soap opera, and psychological insights, all painstakingly documented and footnoted, it gave me a new sense of respect for the diminutive man who, during his lifetime, ruled the largest territorial empire the world had ever seen, much of it through the sheer strength of his personality. With long, dark nights and 20 new variants of Covid pending, this is the perfect companion to keep you from losing your marbles during the bleak midwinter ahead.
“The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist” is an engrossing biography of the world’s most famous female art thief. Art crime is apparently a largely sexist activity, being committed overwhelmingly by men. Author Anthony Amore, currently director of Security and Chief Investigator for the Garner Museum in Boston, shows how a well-to-do member of the British moneyed classes turned into a B-list Patty Hearst during the 1960s.
Eventually Dugdale decided to actively support the terrorist practices of the IRA, much to the embarrassment of some in that organization, shifting her posh English accent to an Irish brogue or Cockney slang whenever she chose to selectively check her privilege. The tale of what eventually sent her to prison, which involved the violent theft of 19 Old Master paintings including Johannes Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid” (c. 1670-71), is absolutely astonishing, but you will come to loathe her (and feel sorry for her parents) long before the climax of the tale. To paraphrase Roseanne Barr, Rose Dugdale is a perfect example of why some animals eat their young.
The race riots of 2020 were based entirely on a lie. That lie hasn’t gone away; it’s only gone dormant, to be deployed the next time it’s useful for political ends. The lie is that the U.S. police and courts are systemically racist against black Americans. Pioneering social scientist Charles Murray documents this in his slim 2021 book, “Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America.”
The two truths of the subtitle are these: That America’s major racial groups currently exhibit different means and distributions of cognitive ability, what is commonly labeled IQ. The second is that America’s major racial groups have different distributions of violent crime rates. Murray explains why these two are connected—people with lower mental abilities commit more violent crimes—and why together they disprove the lie of systemic racism in America’s justice system.
These two facts also help explain why violent crime rises when police, district attorneys, and courts refrain from swiftly punishing violent crime. Besides basic cause and effect, people with lower cognitive abilities respond more strongly to clear and quick punishments and rewards.
Murray’s deeply important oeuvre helps connect this more broadly to why big government is especially bad for the poor and working class: Rule by administrative state deeply complicates government, essentially withdrawing participation from the lower classes and disconnecting virtues like hard work and playing by the rules from their rewards. This encourages the lower classes in a country to become dependent and thereby spiritually impoverishes their lives. It essentially cements the poverty cycle, to which crime and laziness are two key contributors.
“Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections” is the book about the 2020 election that only Mollie Hemingway was brave enough to write, even though the subject matter should have had political analysts, researchers, and journalists all over it. Mollie did ferret out such sources, but the fact that she was the only reporter to doggedly pursue good information about this major public concern tells you a lot about the state of U.S. politics, media, and even our culture. (Where have all the good men gone?)
The stories she tells as a result of her investigation only expand that commentary. “Rigged” is a book about liars and cowards, how they rule the rest of us, and that we allow it. Hop over here to get a preview of what awaits you inside this book if you haven’t read this 2021 bestseller yet. After you read your copy, sit down and consider what you plan to do now that you know.
Paul Auster’s 1987 dystopian novel, “In The Country of Last Things,” felt nearly realistic amid coronavirus chaos and the lockdowns that followed. The book centers around a young woman named Anna searching for her brother in a city that has collapsed into lawlessness and disorder. Starving citizens collect trash and barter with each other.
It is written as a letter to a childhood friend from the protagonist’s perspective. “Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you must not waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it,” Auster writes, communicating the sense of despair that has enveloped the city and cast a shade on all who have the burden of being in its midst.
Some may have sought a literary escape from the madness and unjust actions of our elites during the peak of lockdowns. “In The Country of Last Things,” however, was a journey into a sort of existential and schizophrenic crisis America has yet to experience but is beginning to recognize is possible. It was a wild ride, yet thought-provoking and tragic. Auster crafts an emaciated world that offers lessons of perseverance and loss in the face of humanity’s bleak destruction.
In “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds” by Michael Knowles, the Daily Wire host deconstructs the misinterpreted idea of “academic freedom” and substantively argues in favor of ordered liberty. He crafts an effective argument against so-called “free speech absolutism” and describes why the American founding tradition was never intended to foster the sort of fusionist perspective that has led to ostensible conservatives putting aside morals for freedom.
In about 250 pages, Knowles historically charts how conservatives have lost ground in the culture war to the left. As he argues, the right has sought neutrality in an idealistic daze and failed to go on the offensive. Knowles introduces complex academic concepts in an accessible way and conveys the importance of language in shaping culture. He centralizes political correctness and cultural Marxism — and how the two shaped a morally degenerate, self-contradicting society. Informative and thoughtful, I think this is a pertinent work for any young or old conservative seeking to know What Time It Is amid the left’s march through the institutions.
Daniel James Brown’s new book, “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II,” presents first-hand and often heartbreaking accounts of Japanese Americans’ forced relocation and lives inside internment camps. Yet when the United States joined World War II, Japanese Americans answered the call to duty and formed an all-Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT).
After reading the book, you will understand why the 442nd RCT was one of the most decorated units in the U.S. army’s history. This book is timely because today’s left advocates fighting past racism with racism. This book reminds us of a better approach — a generation ago, Japanese Americans responded to injustice and discrimination with patriotism and valor.
“The Last Girl: My Story Of Captivity” is a moving memoir by Nadia Murad, who came from the Yazidi community in Iraq. In 2014, Islamic State militants massacred people in her village, including six of her brothers and her mother. Murad and other Yazidi girls became sex slaves of ISIS militants. Murad was repeatedly raped, beaten, and sold. She would eventually escape her captivity.
She has courageously shared her story on the world stage and called for the persecution of ISIS for genocide against Yazidi. Her activism and outspokenness have earned her 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. This book documents Murad’s journey from a farm girl to a world-renowned human rights activist. Anyone who reads it will find plenty of inspiration.
There’s one more reason to read this book. In November this year, Toronto District School Board cancelled Murad’s book reading with students because superintendent Helen Fisher claimed the book would be offensive to Muslim students and “foster Islamophobia.” The leader of one of the largest school districts equates regular law-abiding, peace-loving Muslims with a terrorist organization is offensive and appalling. I treat the woke left’s zealous “book burning” as my shopping guide for good books, and you should do the same.
As we wait to see if Amazon will ruin its adaptation of the Second Age of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (probably), dedicated Tolkien readers can rest easy knowing that the literary side of the legendarium is in good hands. Christopher Tolkien died in 2020, after a half-century of editing his father’s extensive unpublished work, and the task has now passed to Carl F. Hostetter, who has done excellent work on “The Nature of Middle-Earth.”
The material shows Tolkien grappling with significant worldbuilding problems such as elven aging, reproduction, and reincarnation, with sections on the later becoming almost scholastic. It demonstrates (again) that the greatness of Tolkien’s published work was in large part due to the depth of his contemplation of his creation—he craved coherence. Though this is not a book for the casual fan, those who delight in understanding Tolkien’s world will find treasure within these pages.
Why did some former liberals who fought against Soviet communism and the Warsaw pact governments turn into reactionary conservatives? It is not just Viktor Orban of Hungary. It is also a bunch of notable intellectuals such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Ai Weiwei.
The answer is in Glenn Diesen’s new book, “Russian Conservatism: Managing Change under Permanent Revolution,” which traces the roots of a changing Russia under Putin and breaks down some of the myths about our idea of modern Russia, a semi-despotic country that is also fundamentally a historic Christian conservative nation. It’s where gender studies and LGBT rights never reached the level that we see in the West; where Orthodox Christianity sees itself as a bulwark and historic successor of the Byzantines against both the forces of revolutionary Western liberalism and near-Eastern Islamism; where Count Suvorov’s historic guiding principle of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationalism” is still followed, despite who’s in charge in the Kremlin.
Diesen argues that the clash with Russia is not due to remnants of Soviet-era KGB ruling over Moscow, but due to a fundamental clash of societies, where the forces of secular transnational social revolutionaries are now pushing to change another Christian conservative society. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that might change the way we see Russia.
My second book of the year is a return to a classic, but not for the reason it’s getting a rep recently. “The History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides is recently popular again due to Graham Allison’s book on “The Thucydides Trap.” That book charts why and when an emerging power ends up in a conflict with an established power, such as what happened between Rome and Carthage, Athens and Sparta, as well as Britain and Germany. Naturally, modern social scientists desiring to decolonise the entire Western canon look down on ancient wisdom from thousands of years ago. We have, after all, evolved. Or have we?
My reason for re-reading this was a portion called the Melian Dialogue (for those interested, there’s five minutes of simplified BBC video here) where Athens gave an ultimatum to the small island of Melos, to either join them or face annihilation. What followed was a treatise in a dialogue format about the realities of power, justice, values, morality, alliances, realpolitik, and expediency.
As Russian troops mass near the Ukraine border, China returns to Cold War form, and America and Britain realise the limitations of power, morality, and values after 30 years of utopian self-sabotage, Thucydides reminds us there’s a reason old wisdom is better than a thousand data-sets, or security studies papers, and there’s a reason classics still and always will be classics.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, and Other Essays” by Gay Talese, a collection of “creative nonfiction” short pieces by one of the fathers of New Journalism, blew me away. The title essay in particular, which was originally published in Esquire magazine in 1966, may well be the best thing I’ve ever read. There’s really something for everyone here, as you see Talese following and breaking all the classic rules of good writing to the effect of transporting you to the room where it happened. I feel cooler for having read it.
“The Original Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment: Its Letter and Spirit,” by Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick instantly set the gold standard for understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment. Most of the high-profile cases that come to the Supreme Court are adjudicated under this provision, which applies individual-rights protections against state violations, and the authors definitively show how the natural-rights principles of the Declaration of Independence return to our constitutional order — or at least would if the courts followed the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment — after the Civil War. (Full disclosure: Barnett is one of my intellectual mentors, while Bernick, now a law professor himself, was my intern.)
To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked up David Harsanyi’s book “Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failing Ideas of a Dying Continent” had it not been written by a friend. I love visiting Europe, but I associate its policy debates with correctly measuring the curvature of bananas and applying mind-numbing “competition” (what we call antitrust) regulations. Although Harsanyi does cover that technocratic morass, he doesn’t dwell on it and in any event his lively writing shows rather than tells why the American way is superior — if we can keep it that way.
If you’re looking for one place that connects all of the confusing dots of the COVID-19 pandemic — historical, medical, political, and more — the book you’re looking for is “COVID-19 and the Global Predators: We Are the Prey,” by Dr. Peter Breggin and Ginger Ross Breggin.
No one is better positioned to bring it all into context than Dr. Breggin, who has a sterling history of calling out corruption in medicine and Big Pharma. He became trusted as the “conscience of psychiatry” after his success in the early 1970s to stop the American Psychiatric Association from reviving the barbaric practice of lobotomy.
He and Ginger Breggin have put together a masterpiece of meticulous research that delves into everything you need to know about the Wuhan Lab research, the vaccines, clinical studies (or lack thereof), home treatments, and more. On the political front, their book charts the exploitation of COVID-19 as an instrument for jumpstarting globalists’ fever dream of “The Great Reset,” the most massive social engineering project the world has ever known.
The Breggins also follow the money and the many players, including Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, John Kerry, the Chinese Communist Party, et al. With a true psychiatrist’s eye, the Breggins describe “the perpetrator syndrome” which is at the heart of the fear-mongering and the totalitarian impulse, causing enormous damage to human freedom and well-being. There is an exhaustive chronology (through August 2021) that brings the big picture into even sharper focus. As unapologetic lovers of freedom and America, the Breggins also offer prescriptions for getting us out of this mess, making “COVID-19 and the Global Predators” a must read.
One of the sadder things about the libertarian movement is how absent it has been — and really it’s been worse than absent — from important battles against government overreach with COVID mandates. John Tamny’s “When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason” is a notable exception to that sad state of affairs. He explains in detail how government policies were bound to fail because of the lack of information held by central planners, providing deep thinking at a time of little thinking.
About mid-way through Ronald J. Pestritto’s history of progressivism in America, “America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism,” I began to get excited about how it would end. He so beautifully and comprehensively lays out the consequences of the deviation from the constitutional governance into the progressive administrative state that it reads like a thriller. Even more interesting, the ending was just as explosive as I hoped (or is it feared?) it would be. A truly excellent book.
“Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies,” Barry Meier’s almost-too-late-to-matter book looks at how a fake dossier alleging Donald Trump colluded with Russia came to be peddled by so many media figures and cause so much damage to the country. It’s worth reading, even if readers of The Federalist will be much more knowledgeable on the topic than readers of other publications that botched the story, if for no other reason than Meier is one of the only corporate journalists to even explore the topic.
And because of his deep friendships and relationships with key figures in the Russia collusion lie, he provides never-before-seen details about the hoax and how easy it was to launder it through left-leaning media such as The New York Times. Because he looks at other hoaxes that were peddled through the media, it’s an important warning about how seriously corrupted not just political journalism is, but business and other journalism as well.
My reading was somewhat limited this year because I was writing “Rigged: How The Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections,” my book on the 2020 election. A wonderful companion book from Hans von Spakovsky and John Fund — “Our Broken Elections: How the Left Changed the Way You Vote” — does an excellent job of moving the conversation from past problems with election integrity into future fixes. Its deep dives on the private, Zuckerberg-funded takeover of government election offices and misadministration of voting rolls and other important aspects to free and fair elections is extremely helpful and serious.
A few years back I got into the habit of reading my youngest child books about brave women. One of my favorites was “Shepherdess of Elk Valley,” an historic account by a woman who lost her husband in the Spanish Flu shortly after they bought ranch land near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The delightful book is about how she became a successful rancher on her own, with the help of God-given perseverance, kind neighbors and a great dog.
Right now I’m reading “Light in the Dark Belt,” Rosa Young’s memoir of how she came from abject poverty to help found 30 Lutheran schools, 35 Lutheran congregations, and Concordia College in Alabama. I love her attention to detail and how her memories unfold on the pages.
Browsing in a small used bookstore in Santa Fe this summer, I stumbled across an old, slim paperback that looked intriguing because it was blurbed by both Groucho Marx and Harper Lee. Much to my surprise, I had never even heard of the 1968 novel “Red Sky at Morning” by Richard Bradford, despite the fact that it sold more than 1 million copies in its day and they made a movie out of it starring Richard Thomas (a.k.a “John-Boy” from The Waltons). I don’t know why the book has become undeservedly forgotten — the few people I’ve encountered who have read it all recall it affectionately, and people from New Mexico sing its praises for capturing the zeitgeist of a pretty unique part of the country.
It’s the tale of a teenage boy who’s uprooted from cozy upper middle-class circumstances in Alabama and sent to live in New Mexico when his father decides to enlist in the Navy during World War II. In the 1940s, the southwest was still largely the undeveloped wild west, and what little civilization there was depended on learning to appreciate the ways of series of lively Hispanic and Native American characters.
If being a fish out of water wasn’t enough of a struggle, the young protagonist also has to become the man of the house when his high-flown southern eccentric of a mother starts unraveling mentally. Coming of age novels don’t get any better than this, striking a near perfect balance between laugh out loud comedy and bittersweet angst. In other words, the blurbs were truth in advertising — “Red Sky at Morning” feels like what would happen if you forced Groucho Marx and Harper Lee to write a book together.
Whittaker Chambers is best known for his sprawling book “Witness,” the magnum opus of anti-communism. However, for much of his career Chambers was a workaday journalist for Time magazine and other outlets, and his some of his lesser writings have been collected in “Ghosts on the Roof,” edited by Terry Teachout, an estimable critic and biographer in his own right.
I won’t claim that “Ghosts on the Roof” contains writings on par with the historical import of “Witness,” but the book is a minor revelation. Even when you’re reading something as seemingly disposable as a short film review, when it’s written by Chambers there’s still a moral gravity to his words that’s distinctly missing from so much of today’s journalism that should shame all of us contemporary ink-stained wretches.
I had long known that S.J. Perelman is a legendary and much-admired humorist — to bring this full circle, he wrote the screenplays for the Marx Brothers films “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers” — but it took until 2021 that I picked up “The World of S.J. Perelman.” To be honest, much of the subject matter is so dated as to be alien and I am well into my middle age years. However, the jokes still land effortlessly and seamless craft of his prose will be savored and enjoyed by anyone looking to be amused and who appreciates top-notch writing.
Earlier this year, I plowed through several by Jack Carr, who writes airport potboilers in the vein of Lee Child and Tom Clancy. Carr is an ex-Navy SEAL, which means that he a) has no business being as competent and entertaining a writer as he is and b) when it comes technothrillers about terrorism, the military, and emerging geopolitical threats, he knows what he’s talking about. Amazon is soon releasing a TV series starring Chris Pratt based on Carr’s first book, “The Terminal List.” Once you read that book, you’ll be hooked on the rest of Carr’s series.
“The Long Ships” by Frans G. Bengtsson is another classic that somehow evaded my attention until 2021. The 80 year-old book has long been a staple of Swedish literature, and if you want historical fiction and adventure, this tale of Viking life is just a rollicking good time and does fantastic job of worldbuilding. I always understood that the Vikings were pagan, but “The Long Ships” really gives you a window into the motivations of a culture that existed outside an historic Judeo-Christian understanding of European life. The way characters are casually killed off, regardless of how likable and central to the story you may think they are, makes me wonder how much of an influence it was on “Game of Thrones.”
Speaking of adventure, if you’re looking for a beach read or other diversion, it’s hard to beat “The Lost City of the Monkey God,” by Douglas Preston. A real life Indiana Jones tale, it’s about an expedition into a remote and very dangerous jungle Central America in order to explore the existence of some legendary archeological ruins.
Preston is perhaps best known as a hugely successful writer of supernatural thrillers, and his ability to keep readers turning pages is no less evident in his nonfiction. Aside from telling an amazing story, there’s a ton of fascinating info here on everything from LIDAR to snakes to how woke politics are roiling archaeology. And despite being written in 2017, the abundant info on tropical diseases mean that even Anthony Fauci manages to make an appearance without distracting too much from an otherwise extremely entertaining book.
That’s more than enough recommendations to keep a stack on your night stand for months to come. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.