From histories of America’s wars to biographies of forgotten poets and prescient treatments of contemporary politics and culture, 2013 was a great year for books. The American Conservative‘s editors and writers share their favorites. —Micah Mattix
With the country just emerging from its lachrymose bout of “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye” remembrance, recommending a book about anyone named Kennedy may seem like overkill. Even so, my nominee for best book—or at least best biography—of the past year is David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. A man of considerable talent and even more considerable ambition, Joe Kennedy was crafty and conniving rather than virtuous. But Nasaw’s immensely entertaining book provides a fascinating account of his rise, fall, and vicarious recovery. The book pivots on Kennedy’s term as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Appointed to that office with Europe sliding toward war, Kennedy exerted himself to avert a conflict that he feared would inevitably envelop his own country and endanger his children. Although the effort proved his undoing, the story makes for gripping reading.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, and most recently the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.
Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. A frightening look at current trends dividing America between two distinct nations—the meritocratic winners and those left behind—made especially terrifying because its libertarian author does not regard these trends as particularly worrisome.
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.
Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford. This is the most idiosyncratic argument for the reasonableness of Christian faith that I’ve ever read—and a book that comes closer than any in recent memory to explaining what religious faith feels like from the inside. The word “feels” is key here; Spufford, an English novelist of note, writes about Christianity from an emotion-oriented perspective. It’s the kind of thing that religious conservatives tend to recoil at—Spufford is a liberal Anglican—but I found myself reading this slim, beautiful book often thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is.” Spufford and I no doubt disagree on many aspects of the faith we both profess, but this unusual, slightly profane, slyly profound memoir taught me more about Christianity than any other book I read this year (and note well that it is not an ideological text). I bought Unapologetic as a Christmas present for a young friend who is going through a crisis of faith; Spufford’s smart but companionable voice—reading his book is like having a long conversation at the pub with a good friend—may be the only one who can reach her inside the life she lives.
The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. Right, so this is my book, which I suppose obliges me to recommend it to you as a Christmas present. Here’s the thing: I’ve signed a lot of them this Christmas season for readers who tell me they’re giving it to their mom, or to their friend struggling with cancer, or to their estranged sibling, or to someone they know struggling with grief, or to displaced family members whom they’d like to return from exile. Things like that. Little Way is the story of my sister, a country girl and a small-town schoolteacher with whom I didn’t get along, but whose death from cancer in her early 40s taught me something important about how to live. It’s got a lot of heartbreak in it, but also some heartwarming stories and, ultimately, hope. “This book changed my life,” so many people have told me; I believe them, because living through Ruthie’s journey did the same thing for me.
Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor.
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston. Preston’s sweeping history bolsters the case against the old misunderstanding of the separation of church and state as the separation of religion and politics. Preston shows that Americans have, since the settlement of New England, located themselves within a sacralized geography that gives foreign policy a distinctly theological significance. That’s not always a good thing: our habit of dividing the world into the forces of light and darkness can blind us both to our allies’ disagreements with us and to our rivals’ legitimate interests. But it is probably an inescapable feature of our culture. Preston is at his most interesting when tracking down evidence of religious sensibilities and theological commitments in unlikely places. For example, he presents George Kennan as a wayward Calvinist, who filtered his belief in sin through Freud’s naturalism.
At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn. At Last concludes St. Aubyn’s tetralogy of novels about Patrick Melrose, a sensitive but dissolute British aristocrat whose biography mirrors his own. In this book, Patrick finds a measure of peace in the death of his mother, a profoundly weak woman who colluded in her depraved husband’s abuse of Patrick, as well as other children. Readers who treasure St. Aubyn’s moments of social satire, à la Waugh, will enjoy Patrick’s final revenge on Nicholas Pratt—a vicious and precisely named snob who imagines himself a relic of better times. Others will appreciate St. Aubyn’s increasingly sophisticated essays on the phenomena of consciousness and memory, which evoke Proust without being too pompous about it. At Last works on both levels.
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of Political Science at George Washington University.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. I’ve been a WWI buff since reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August as a kid and have read tons of books on the subject, trying to figure out why the Europeans decided to commit continental and civilizational suicide in 1914. Clark’s history provides some answers, and just brilliant; highly recommended with a lot of lessons for our age.
Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. I covered the 2012 presidential race and wasn’t looking forward to reading more stuff about the subject. But these two reporters know how to write and there is a lot of new info in the book about the elections and its leading characters. Mitt Romney comes out looking better than I had expected while Jon Huntsman is portrayed as a wuss and a jerk. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a so-called political junkie who should read this book.
China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing’s Image, Ivan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo. This book reads sometimes like the Protocols of the Mandarins of Beijing, implying that the Chinese people selling hijabs in Cairo, building Dams in Ecuador, or mining minerals in Congo are all part of a “silent army” that has been deployed by China’s leaders as part of a well-coordinated strategy to dominate the planet. Yet the two Spanish reporters who crisscrossed the world for three years to investigate their topic provided me with many interesting details about China and the global economy that I didn’t know, and they write strong and lively prose.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village, Henrietta Harrison. Christianity has very deep roots in China, dating back at least to the sixth century. If you read the standard accounts, though, the faith has come and gone in waves. Every few centuries, a savage persecution entirely uproots every trace of the religion—until the next wave arrives, and suddenly it seems stronger than ever. The Missionary’s Curse traces the faith in a village that has remained faithfully Catholic for several centuries, despite repeated cycles of persecution and (apparent) eradication. Harrison offers a story of survival despite all the assaults of successive imperial and atheist regimes. It’s fascinating to see how Catholic Christianity became fully integrated into the life of the village, a friendly acculturation that often led to trouble with European authorities. As the title suggests, this is no straightforward academic tome, but rather a rich collection of stories, with plenty of legends and folk tales included in the mix.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.
Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965, by Michael Burleigh. Burleigh recounts the two decades after WWII marked by the collapse of European colonial empires and their partial replacement by the U.S. in the context of its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. It is an engaging and highly readable study that reviews both the history of anti-colonial and nationalist insurgencies in Africa and Asia and the wars waged by the major Western powers against them. Burleigh investigates the backgrounds of the major figures involved to understand the motivations and goals of both sides of these conflicts, and introduces American readers to a number of conflicts from Malaya to Algeria that most of us don’t know very well. It is a very useful survey of some of the most significant events of the early post-WWII world, and has great relevance for anyone interested in how and why Western governments fight so many unnecessary foreign wars.
Daniel Larison is a TAC senior editor.
J.F. Powers’s novels and short stories on the lives of priests are full of subtle, dry wit. He is the kind of writer whose sentences make you laugh two or three seconds after you read them, and then you can’t stop. His letters have the same effect. Rarely have I laughed, or winced, as much while reading a collection of letters as I did while reading Powers’s letters to friends and family collected in Katherine A. Powers’s Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life. Always on the lookout for “suitable accommodations” for his ever-growing family (but with as little work as possible), Powers’s bon mots, domestic complaints, and self-effacing humor both enchant and tell the story of a somewhat distant father and an occasionally frustrated writer.
This year was an excellent one for biographies of poets. The best two were Dieter Kühn’s Gertrud Kolmar: A Literary Life and Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War. Kolmar, a German Jew whose lyric poetry oscillates between quiet nature poems on small forest animals and violent images of sex and childbirth, died in the Second World War at Auschwitz. D’Annunzio, whose poetry celebrated modern technology and war with terrifying virtuosity, spurred hundreds of thousands of Italian men to their death in the First World War and is remembered for his womanizing and brief occupation of Fiume. Two radically different lives, but two of most gifted and fascinating literary figures of the twentieth century, who, at least until these biographies, were largely forgotten.
Micah Mattix is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University.
There have been too many good books published this year that I just haven’t got around to reading. I know they’re good because our reviews in The American Conservative say so. And as an editor, not only do I find myself wondering when I’ll have time to read Adam Smith’s Pluralism or Metamorphoses of the City—which was on my can’t-miss list even before I laid eyes on Daniel Mahoney’s evaluation, a review that ought to convince a few newcomers to sample the great French political theorist’s work—but I already have 2014 books on my desk, including one, Daniel Kelly’s Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr., that I can’t refrain from recommending straight away. It’s a beautifully written account of one of the conservative movement’s most brilliant and troubled, and sadly neglected, founders.
Of books that were published this year and which I did get to read while they were hot, the one that influenced me most was Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, which shows how today’s headlines—about Islamic unrest, the rise of China, the tests of global capitalism, and even the pope—were seeded 34 years ago. A change in world civilization took place, and only now is it becoming clear how big that change was.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Baghdad Solitaire, by Leslie Cockburn. Cockburn is a veteran journalist who spent a lot of time in Baghdad after the invasion and who feels—as many of us do—that the forms of non-fiction or journalism can’t capture the totality of what we know and experience in what might seem to be historically pivotal situations. Often I wish that one of the great nineteenth century novelists would capture contemporary Washington, the forces—religious, financial, psychological—which drive otherwise responsible officials to foment ridiculous wars. Cockburn is not one of those novelists, but she is an experienced and extremely knowledgeable observer and one of the rare people who can start writing fiction relatively late in their career and succeed. (Many have tried of course.) Her subject is Baghdad under the American occupation, the fear, the violence, the epic corruption, seen through the eyes of a young American surgeon.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Looking back, I was disturbed, but not surprised, to see how few books from 2013 I read this year. And I wish I could say it’s because I read so many great old books that I had no time for new ones—but, sadly, this wasn’t a great reading year for me. Sounds like I know what one of my New Year’s resolutions should be!
But here are a handful of books that were worth grappling with:
Like Dreamers, by Yossi Klein Halevi. Like Dreamers is a portrait of post-1967 Israel told through the stories of the lives of several paratroopers involved in the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. In one sense, it’s an incredibly diverse group—Socialist kibbutzniks and Orthodox messianists, artists and entrepreneurs, peaceniks and settlers, and one radical who is convicted for treason for spying for Syria. But in another sense, it’s an incredibly narrow group—all male members of the Ashkenazi elite of the country. The downside of this narrowness is that the reader gets a very skewed view of what has actually driven the changes in Israeli society since ’67, but the benefit is that to a considerable extent this skewed view is shared by the demographic depicted. And, not coincidentally, the book, without taking a clear political stance on the settlement enterprise, paints a very sympathetic portrait of the settlers themselves, because they are part of the family. One can reject that way of framing politics, but it’s very worth understanding, and Halevi’s book is a good way into it.
Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, by Brent Nongbri. This is a book that annoyed me far more than it should have. The core argument of the book is that the category “secular” is a modern concept—and that, therefore, the category “religious” is also a modern concept, deriving from the Wars of Religion and their aftermath. For most of history in most of the world, there were no boundaries between what we call “religion” and “custom” and “ethnicity” and even, in some cases, “law” or “science,” and that we have both distorted our understanding of our own past and actually changed other cultures by forcing them into a conceptual box called “religion.” On one level, this is obviously true, and a useful corrective to facile assumptions about religion and modernity. But on another level, it’s obviously false. Priests, shamans, and imams may perform the functions we ascribe to doctors or judges, but that doesn’t mean they have no cultic or intercessionary function. And while pre-modern Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Confucians may not have had a “world religions” model like we do, but understood all practices and beliefs from within their own framework, that doesn’t mean they failed to identify foreign practices as foreign, or that they failed to identify them as religious practices, which is all that is necessarily implied by using the term. But these criticisms are not reasons to avoid the book—they are emphatically reasons to engage with it.
One of my favorite new plays of 2013 was Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel-style memoir of the same name, about her relationship with her father, a closeted gay man whose sexuality she only found out about when, during college, she herself came out to her parents. Not too long after these revelations, her father died, in an accident that suggested a possible suicide. Her book is emphatically worth tackling—and is considerably darker than the musical. But in 2012 she published a sequel, Are You My Mother, about her relationship with her other parent, that I can’t recommend as necessarily of general interest, though I found it fascinating. More a memoir of her therapy than a direct engagement with her mother, if nothing else the book is an excellent introduction to the theories of pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
Have you really not read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming yet? Really? Seriously, I’d recommend it even if Rod weren’t a friend and colleague. The subtitle is, I think, likely to mislead—this isn’t a book about “the secret of a good life” because there is no secret. This is really Dreher’s story, not his sister’s, a story of how he came to see something he never understood about her, or about the world he came from. And it’s not a story about how that world is better than any other world; it’s about how it’s good, deeply good, in a way that was only partly accessible to him growing up—and is still only partly accessible to him, even after he saw what his sister meant to his home town, and after he moved back to reconnect with that world. For all that there’s a great deal of love and hope in it, it’s at heart a sad story—and not only because a beautiful, loving woman dies, but because people, deep down, are different, and separate because of that difference. Eternally so. But if we’re lucky, and open, and determined, we can learn to love each other, and respect each other, both because of and in spite of that essential separation.
Noah Millman is TAC‘s theater critic.
I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming this summer, and it was fantastic. Rod’s book is rich with character. Its exploration of kinship, love, and place makes it an incredibly worthwhile read. I felt like I got to know Ruthie (and Rod) better as I read it.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.
My recommendation is Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure—a brilliant trip down memory lane by the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper who knew Paddy well. Sir Leigh-Fermor was a war hero and brilliant travel writer whose Time of Gifts is a nonpareil of its kind. He was also a friend of every good post-war Greek writer and intellectual, as rare as they were and are in modern Greece.
Taki Theodoracopulos is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
While they won’t make for the kind of popular American history reading that often goes down like a teaspoon of sugar before bedtime, these four foreign policy offerings of 2013 are pure good medicine (though they might keep you up at night). Taken in small doses (I don’t recommend reading any of them in one sitting), and with an open mind, they’ll teach you more about the dark side the American war state, past, present, and yet to come, than you ever wanted to know.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse. All you wanted to know about civilian massacres, body counts, and how counterinsurgency failed in the American war in Vietnam. Gumshoe investigative journalist Nick Turse scours thousands of pages of heretofore hidden files he stumbled upon in the Library of Congress and tells a compelling and richly detailed new story about how the highest levels of the US military helped to provoke, and then cover up American war crimes across the Vietnamese countryside, which occurred more frequently during that war (1965-75) than Washington has ever admitted. He travels to villages in Vietnam and across the US to talk to the soldiers who lived it in order to make his case for reexamining the worst aspects of our failed mission in Southeast Asia.
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, by Jeremy Scahill. Scahill pours years of on-the-ground investigative journalism into this tour de force, which painstakingly documents the “shadow war” behind the Global War on Terror, particularly the rise of drones and the Joint Forces Special Operations command as a global military force with secret sanction and very few border restrictions on raiding, bombing, and torture. He also presents the personalities: Dick Cheney, Stanley McChrystal, and David Petraeus, among others, and demonstrates how they were able to pursue their secret targeting killing programs while selling the more palatable “counterinsurgency” to the Washington defense establishment. Think you know what the US military has been doing over the last 12 years? Think again.
Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency, by Col. Gian Gentile. Anyone who has lived through the Washington phenomenon that was “COIN” (counterinsurgency) from about 2007-2011 will appreciate Gentile’s wry and experienced take on how Washington came under the spell of one Gen. David Petraeus, watched tens of thousands of Americans march off to war during the surge, and have very little to show for it today. Gentile examines the origins of counterinsurgency, how its historic lessons in Malaya and Vietnam were manipulated and perverted in order to sell COIN for this war, and where it all went terribly wrong in Afghanistan. Thankfully, Gentile knows his stuff and pulls no punches, even though he was active duty Army when the book was written.
They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, the Untold Story, by Ann Jones. What can I say, I cried throughout the reading of the book, it is that graphic and emotionally intense. Jones, a 75-year-old gangbuster of a writer, researcher, and interviewer, embedded herself in the chief surgical hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, she traveled with the wounded to Landstuhl medical center in Germany, and then back to Walter Reed in Washington. These were no ordinary patients—they were multiple amputees with injuries beyond description. But she endeavors to describe it all, to make us feel right there with her on this harrowing journey for understanding. This book should be required for all boys and girls of recruitment age and their families.
Kelley B. Vlahos is a columnist for Antiwar.com and contributing editor at The American Conservative.