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For Your Christmas Book List

My recommendations for your Christmas book shopping, published today in The American Spectator: [1]

My six-year-old Nora said to me recently that she feels so good going to Barnes & Noble “because there are books everywhere.” That’s my girl! Books are my favorite present to give and to get. Here are a few that I have in mind this year:

Dante’s Divine Comedy [2], by, ahem, Dante. Somehow, I made it to middle age without having read this masterpiece. This year, staggering around the dark wood midway through the journey of my own life, I picked up the Divine Comedy and and began reading. It has been transformative and redemptive. Beauty, sex, passion, love, tragedy, God—all of life is in that blessed thing. If I had encountered this poem earlier in life, I might not have been capable of appreciating its beauty and taking its wisdom into my battered heart. Don’t buy the new Clive James translation. You need a version with excellent footnotes to decode many of the symbols and allusions. The Hollander translation is the academic standard and my favorite, but John Ciardi’s time-tested version is also quite good and has the best notes.

The Earl Of Louisiana [3], by A.J. Liebling. As a fan of Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a collection of his essays on dining in the world’s best city, I had long wondered about his legendary take on Louisiana’s craziest governor, Earl K. Long. This past summer, at my cousin’s fishing camp on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, I found The Earl Of Louisiana on a coffee table and started to read. It is an extraordinary portrait of American politics and a mad, bad, all-too-human world gone by. I was born and raised in Louisiana, and returned here to live two years ago, but reading about those vivid characters and those breathtaking events of the late 1950s and early 1960s made me realize that my home state really is another country. God knows what Dante would have done with the cast of real-life characters Liebling meets on his tour through the Gret Stet. Liebling’s appetite for life comes through on every page.

Americans In Paris: A Literary Anthology [4], edited by Adam Gopnik. This is a collection of essays and remembrances by Americans over three centuries who have lived and loved in Paris. There are riveting historical documents, including entries from Gouverneur Morris’s diary of the French Revolution, during which time he served as U.S. Ambassador to France, and James Baldwin’s brutal discovery that the French can be just as racist as his fellow countrymen. There are also delightful macarons such as S.J. Perelman’s short story “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” and, yes, a Liebling digression on how to eat like a Parisian. Give this one to your Francophile friend, one who can relate to Gopnik’s statement that Americans who love Paris do so because it gives them a “sense of serious happiness,” of “absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.”

The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [5], by Rod Dreher. You will, I hope, forgive me for pitching my own memoir, which came out this year. It’s about my late sister Ruthie, a small-town Louisiana schoolteacher who died of cancer at the age of 42. Though her journalist brother gallivanted all over in search of good stories and good times, Ruthie stayed home, married her high school sweetheart, raised kids, and taught school. The luminous courage with which she met her death, and the way the people of my hometown walked with her until the very end, caused me to rethink the value of the life I left behind—and to return to raise my own children. Little Way is not a sentimental paean to Mayberry; I make it clear that the virtues and the vices in both my sister and our town are hard to disentangle. Still, the book I wrote about my sister’s life—and how she changed my own—is, I like to think, one for those who stayed behind, those who went away, and for all of us rootless Americans who long for a place to call home.

Read the entire list [1], which includes recommendations from Quin Hillyer, Roger Kimball, and Nicholas Kristof. Thanks to TAS for giving me the opportunity to contribute.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "For Your Christmas Book List"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 18, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

The Liebling and the Dreher are great. You need some reading discipline for the Dante.

#2 Comment By Erin Manning On December 18, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

Rod, can I be a complete self-promoter and let the literally *tens* of people who bought my first children’s sci-fi book know that the sequel is just now (finally!) available? Info is here:


If this is a violation of blog manners, feel free to delete, etc.

#3 Comment By pacopond On December 18, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

I am reading “Mr. Ives’ Christmas,” by Oscar Hijuelos, on your recommendation. I have a friend who recently lost a loved one to a random and senseless murder. I have decided to give it as a Christmas present. While I don’t know if it will help him at his bleak midwinter, I hope that a novel revolving around faith, loss, and forgiveness will be good for him in God’s own time. Thank you for discussing it.

#4 Comment By Ted On December 18, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

Dreher: Clive James is for someone who has read it before, in many translations, and preferably in the original. Do not neglect to look at Longfellow’s unrhymed, attractively plain translation (much loved by the late James Merrill); and nobody should forget Laurence Binyon. Ezra Pound on the first installment, “Hell”, published back in the ’30s is, in my opinion, the greatest BOOK REVIEW ever written, and admirably makes the case for a rhymed translation in terza rima. And, of course, you must read Eliot’s–what? hommage? meta-mapping–in “Little Gidding”. Merry Christmas.

#5 Comment By Greg On December 18, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

Please do buy and read the new Clive James translation – many allusions are folded in line and more importantly this is a work of art not a puzzle to be decoded.

#6 Comment By Thursday On December 18, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

I’ll throw in a few books I read this year that I’d strongly recommend:

James Kalb, Against Inclusiveness
Eddy M. Zemach, Real Beauty
Peter Leithart, Against Christianity
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Ara Noranzayan, Big Gods

Won’t mention all the literary stuff I read, as there’s too much of it, but I will plug the new poetry books of a couple guys I know and respect:

Peter Campion, El Dorado
Malcolm Guite, The Singing Bowl

In honour of Seamus Heaney’s passing, I’ll recommend his best book, The Spirit Level

#7 Comment By Thursday On December 18, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

The Hollander translation is the academic standard and my favorite, but John Ciardi’s time-tested version is also quite good and has the best notes.

Esolen is better than both Hollander and Ciardi. Sinclair’s prose version is also excellent and has the best notes and commentary.

#8 Comment By Thursday On December 18, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

Binyon is good too, but is less accessible than Esolen.

#9 Comment By David J. White On December 18, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

Since we seem to recommending our favorite translations of Dante, please allow me to plug Anthony Esolen’s. I’ve found it erudite, engaging, and readable. YMMV.

Do not neglect to look at Longfellow’s unrhymed, attractively plain translation

For those who want to leaven their serious reading with something a bit lighter, the Dante translation project by Longfellow, et al. is the background for a fun murder mystery, The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl.