Home for the Holidays
To enrich your holiday season, American Purpose’s editorial board members, contributing editors, and staff share favorite reads from 2020 on some unlikely topics. We’ll return January 4th.
Hiro Aida on Maka Kameguchi’s Shiro Kawata’s Idea of Gender Equality: Women’s Issues in Modern Japan (Kawata Shiro no Danjo Byodo Shiso: Kindai Nihon no Fujin Mondai-Ron to Jenda, 2020):
This is the first-ever book to elaborate on the life and philosophy of Shiro Kawata, maternal grandfather of Francis Fukuyama, focusing primarily on his views of gender equality.
Kawata, one of the first professors in the new economics department at Kyoto Imperial University—which branched off of its law school in the early 20th century—was a prolific public intellectual on a wide range of issues in pre-war Japan, yet died prematurely in 1942 at the age of fifty-nine. He was unjustly forgotten partly because it is hard to epitomize the wide territory his intellectual might covered. It ranges from the agricultural economy, which he examined as a professor, to labor, the family system, gender, and various other social issues. He energetically wrote on gender issues in the 1910s and 1920s. Kameguchi says Kawata’s idea of gender as a social construct was far ahead of the age and very similar to the radical feminism of the 1970s and later. She tries to understand his idea of gender equality within the context of his extensive interest in the modernity into which Japan fully dove in the early 20th century.
Richard Aldous on Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde’s Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution (2019):
Mention cricket in the United States and you’re usually met with a shake of the head and amused bafflement. But thanks to South Asia, cricket today is the second-most-watched sport in the world after soccer, far outmatching the game of baseball, to which it’s often compared. Although “Test” cricket—where each match is played out over five days with the players all in “whites” and often ending in a draw—maintains the older traditions of the game, it is the shorter “Twenty20” (T20) format that now dominates the sport.
Learning lessons from soccer and the English Premier League, T20 has given cricket a new financial and broadcasting clout that has not just reinvigorated the global game but reinvented it. In Cricket 2.0, Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde vividly explain how a format that started professionally in 2003 as a bit of a laugh has taken over the sport and turned many of its precepts upside down, including batsmen always playing attack, attack, attack. Not the least of these impacts has been the democratization of a game that has its roots in the British Empire. By moving away from national to club teams, T20 has produced unlikely global stars such as Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan—arguably the greatest player in the world. This year’s men’s T20 World Cup was cancelled due to the pandemic, but it will now take place next fall in India—the beating heart of the game. It’s a genuinely thrilling prospect. Cricket 2.0 will get you ready for the action. Howzat?
James Barnett on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947):
2020 felt as good a year as any to read one of the bleaker works in the modern British canon. At its core, this is a novel about man’s proclivity for self-destruction. It is the eve of World War II and Lowry’s semi-autobiographical protagonist is wasting away as an expat in Mexico, drinking himself into oblivion for reasons he cannot fully understand. Under the Volcano is an understated, slow-moving tragedy, the paradoxical saga of a man who is at turns terrified and enthralled by the world around him, a man who spurns love and hates himself for doing so.
Consume with a glass of mezcal for full effect.
Martha Bayles on Peter Anthony’s The Man Who Saved the World (2014):
I recently discovered this docudrama about Stanislav Petrov, the Russian military officer who was on duty in 1983 when a false signal from the Soviet defense tracking system showed that the United States had launched a nuclear attack.
The film’s clear intention is to warn of the dangers of inadvertent nuclear war. But it makes another important and very timely point—namely, that a highly imperfect human being, distraught at his wife’s terminal illness and grouchy with everyone around him, made a momentous decision, based on gut-level moral sense, that no computer would have made. It makes no difference that today’s computers are infinitely more powerful. No matter how sophisticated their algorithms and how deep their machine learning, computer systems will never think (and feel) outside the box the way Petrov did. That is because they are the box.
David Blankenhorn on Marilynne Robinson’s Jack (2020):
This is an absolutely beautiful book. If I could ever write one sentence that was as good as any one of a thousand of her sentences, I would feel truly blessed. Robinson is famous, and so I’m not revealing anything new, but Jack is the latest in a series of books—the most well-known of which is Gilead—about . . . well, everything, especially Calvinism, God, mercy, kindness, Iowa, and why we’re on this earth. Think of how you feel about the year 2020, turn it absolutely inside out, and you’ll begin to sense, if you don’t know already, the pleasures of reading Marilynne Robinson.
Daniel Chirot on So, What’s Freedom? (2020):
I want to recommend a new film, So, What’s Freedom?, that few of our readers (if any) will know about. It is Romanian, but has good subtitles. Based on a work by Ana Blandiana, one of Romania’s most famous and liberal poets, it tells the story of the people deported from the part of Romania bordering on Yugoslavia in 1951 on Stalin’s orders to secure the area next to one of Stalin’s most bitter enemies, the communist dictator of Yugoslavia, Tito. About 40,000 or more people were sent to the barren Bǎrǎgan steppe immediately north and west of the Danube. Thousands died of neglect, famine, and disease. In fact, this was a common policy in the USSR and vast numbers of Soviet Koreans, Greeks, Poles, Chechens, Baltic people, and others died in these deportations. The producer is Andrei Zincă, a Romanian who has lived in Latin America and the United States but returned to Romania. The story benefits from a rich theatrical and film tradition in Romania.
So, What’s Freedom? is not about the big political issues that led to the deportation of tens of thousands of helpless and mostly apolitical Romanians to desolate camps in the Romanian steppes, though at the very end it briefly connects to those higher level political trends. Rather, the film is about the minor functionaries who enforced Romanian Communist Party rules. It is about the pettiness, vindictiveness, opportunism, and sheer meanness of those used by their political bosses to impose death-dealing, often entirely senseless policies. It is about the deliberate humiliation of those who are helpless, and the way in which sadistic tendencies are encouraged to win over political hacks and collaborators. It is also about the tenacity of some who resist in what seem to be entirely hopeless situations, and the importance of cooperation among victims. It is about lives needlessly shattered by a dictatorial regime’s paranoia.
So, What’s Freedom? is a moving reminder of what this kind of regime is like for those who are caught up in its cruelties just because of their ethnicity, religion, or sometimes just where they live. It is therefore also a film that addresses things going on elsewhere in the world today. Not least, it is beautifully filmed.
Eliot Cohen on Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844–46):
I decided I wanted to give my French a workout and knew from previous experience that Dumas would not be too brutal on that score. What a storyteller, and what a tale! What I had not realized was how good he was at sketching the Paris of the Bourbon Restoration and then the reign of Louis-Philippe, and at capturing the evolution of characters, both heroic and sinister. Some implausible plot lines, to be sure, but a wonderful way to put coronavirus and academic politics out of my mind.
Tyler Cowen on David S. Reynolds’ Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (2020):
I vowed to never read another Lincoln biography ever again—there are so many—but this 932-pager dragged me out of my exile. Once I started, I never looked back.
Larry Diamond on Isabel Wilkerson’s The Origins of Our Discontents (2020):
In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson has given us a brutally honest and beautifully written account of one of human society’s worst sins: the arbitrary construction of a sweeping social order of group supremacy and subordination based on inherited traits such as race, religion, and class. We think of “caste” as the unique social ranking system by which Hinduism rigidly stratified society and indelibly assigned occupational status. But Wilkerson shows that caste—a system transmitted across generations through poisonous myths and dehumanizing violence—is the perfect lens through which to understand America’s ugly history of racial oppression. While painful and shocking, Caste is such a gripping history and riveting intellectual journey, conveyed with such eloquence and empathy, that the reader is left not only devastated but grateful, and even hopeful.
Charles Dunst on Ken Bensinger’s Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal (2018):
Red Card offers a shocking account of the ongoing FIFA scandal whose criminality bounded from Trinidad to Switzerland to the United States and beyond. Written by Ken Bensinger, a reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News, this book is a lively story that exposes the case’s geopolitical nature and is an absolute must-read for any soccer fan—or simply for Americans interested in learning more about IRS and FBI investigative tactics. Despite Bensinger’s reportage and the heroics of American law enforcement, it remains clear that FIFA has not yet cleaned up its act.
Ronald W. Dworkin on Anthony Trollope’s Lady Anna (1873–74):
It’s a Trollope novel that I had not yet read. True, it’s another courtship plot. True, it’s another story of choosing between love and money. And true, it’s not his best novel. But as they say, even mediocre Trollope is great fiction. Just an encouragement to American Purpose readers to read a Trollope novel, any one of his novels, and happily find oneself hooked for life. One of the best pieces of advice I can give.
Jamie M. Fly on James Hoffmann’s The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing—Coffees Explored, Explained and Enjoyed (2014):
2020 has forced most of us to spend an inordinate amount of time at home. In my case, that’s required an upgrade to my coffee routine. James Hoffmann is a World Barista Champion, coffee expert, and YouTube personality who produces helpful videos about coffee-making and coffee equipment. This encyclopedic book covers everything you ever wanted to know about coffee, from the tree to proper brewing technique to key coffee regions of the world. It is a great resource for the coffee neophyte and coffee addict alike.
Mike Fox on Jeff Gordinier’s Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World (2019):
With my own travel impossible this year, I turned to travel-writing as a necessary escape. Hungry, by Esquire Magazine Food & Drinks editor Jeff Gordinier, was a perfect sampling of everything I look for myself when I leave the United States. It’s a fast-paced story with big personalities, hopping from country to country, eating the best avant garde and homey food available. Gordinier spent several years tailing René Redzepi, the Danish chef behind Noma, which is widely recognized as the best restaurant in the world. Redzepi closed Noma after it repeatedly received the highest accolades in order to challenge himself again. In the book, he seeks inspiration by reopening the gourmet restaurant in several different countries over the course of a year, drawing on local talent and food culture in the process. Gordinier paints a compelling story of how we can all find renewed inspiration and ambition when we choose discomfort over complacency. Hungry shows that going out into the world is one of the best sources for these necessary sparks.
Francis Fukuyama quoting Matthew B. Crawford’s Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (2020):
“This was one episode in what became a prolonged education in various industrial processes, which became necessary once I no longer took for granted the adequacy of available parts. In the course of this education, which is ongoing (the car is not yet finished), I bought a metal lathe, gained access to a milling machine, and found it incredible that I had ever gotten by without these things. Measure everything, trust nobody, and make it from scratch if need be.”
Adam Garfinkle on Barry Singer’s Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (1992), Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835), and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869):
If you love American music, and appreciate American history and diplomacy some, too, read Barry Singer’s captivating book, Black and Blue. Born in Washington, D.C., in December 1895—as it happens about three blocks from where my father was born in January 1905—Andrea Razafkerifo was the birth name of a man whose father was the nephew of the Queen of Imerina and whose mother was the daughter of the U.S. consul to the Imerinan court, John Lewis Waller, a slave born in 1850 in Missouri. Razafkerifo never set foot in Madagascar, where he was conceived—his father sent his pregnant wife to safety on the eve of the French colonial usurpation of Imerinan sovereignty in the Second Hoya War—but he did write some of the greatest lyrics of pre-war jazz music, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and plenty more. As a young man he even pitched for a semi-pro offshoot of the old Negro League . . . in Cleveland! What’s not to like?
Don’t like music? Shame. Here’s an alternative suggestion that also includes things French. Read, as I did recently, in succession Honoré de Balzac’s novel, from within La Comédie Humaine collection, Le Père Goriot, published in 1835 but set in 1819; and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, published in 1869 but set in 1846–47. Both writers decided to backdate their settings, within living memory of most of their readers, to describe social mores and politics headed toward epochal events. (Little did Flaubert know that the Franco-Prussian War was just around the corner; his quarry was the run-up to the Revolutions of 1848.) Flaubert is particularly effective in depicting the indulgent idiocy of that era’s rough equivalent of our “woke” utopians. The melodrama of the mid-19th-century plot, which would otherwise be distracting, makes perfect sense—perfect nonsense, actually—in the context of the politics.
Suzanne Garment on E.J. White’s A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet (2020):
It had to happen. Stanford University, no less, has published A Unified Theory of Cats on the Internet; and it’s not to be meowed at. (I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.) The book combines history—you do not want to know what people used to do to cats for fun—with a smart analysis of why the self-directed, alienated, stubbornly resistant cat has become the spirit animal of the modern internet. If you have cats, like our classically imposing Siamese or our gorgeous-but-suboptimally-socialized Tonkinese blue, you'll never look at them the same way again.
Jeffrey Gedmin on Caroline Potter’s Nadia and Lili Boulanger (2006):
What a force in 20th-century music Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) was! She taught Aaron Copland, Philip Glass. Elliott Carter, and Daniel Barenboim. George Gershwin went to her. Virgil Thomson called her “our Alma Mater.” “Am I the only one who hasn’t studied with her?”, asked American composer Ned Rorem. Boulanger was an accomplished pianist, organist, and conductor who studied with Gabriel Fauré, knew Ravel, and enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Stravinsky. She was the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in April 1941. At rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, the orchestra at first ignored her. And then mocked her. The first chair violinist fiddled a square dance tune. Boulanger called the all-male group to order: “Gentlemen, this is beautiful music,” she said. “Let us work together!” By rehearsal’s end, embarrassed players were applauding her.
Nadia’s sister never had time to become famous. Lili suffered chronic illness from childhood. She died in 1918, of tuberculosis, at age twenty-four. She herself composed wonderful music.
Nadia Boulanger said that only music can take us out of time. It was a year to listen, 2020.
Devorah Goldman on Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818):
Anne Elliot is the quiet heroine of one of Jane Austen’s quietest novels. The victim of some very bad romantic advice, she spends years wishing she had not ended her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, an energetic and once-poor sailor who went on to become a wealthy and well-respected captain. Having been “forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” Re-reading Persuasion in the midst of a pandemic provided peculiar comfort; unlike Anne, we know there are better things ahead and that her long-standing, self-enforced isolation is not the end of the story.
Zach Graves on Tom Reiss’ The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (2012):
Alexandre Dumas, author of classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, has always been one of my favorite fantasy authors. But the Dumas line had two other famous figures (“les trois Dumas”), including his son of the same name, a famous playwright and author in his own right, and his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a general in Revolutionary France.
This latter Dumas is the focus in The Black Count, which tells the story of his upbringing in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was the son of a rebellious French noblemen father and enslaved African mother, and was later brought to France to live the life of a gentleman. His adventures in Parisian society and swashbuckling military exploits under both Napoleon and the final years of the ancien régime provided inspirations for his son’s later work, including an ordeal in prison and a smuggling island used by his uncle called “Monte Cristo.” The story is also a window into a transformative era, with ample details around the institution of French slavery, evolving attitudes about race, and the rocky establishment of liberal Enlightenment values.
Anna Grzymala-Busse on David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018):
David Reich is a population geneticist. His book offers a brilliant analysis of who we are that reflects the huge migrations and intermingling of humans over time. He dismisses notions of “racial purity,” shows how modern Europeans are the descendants of a violent invasion that occurred roughly five thousand years ago, and demonstrates that millennia of the caste system in India led to genetically distinct groupings that persist despite geographical proximity and the formal abolishing of the caste system.
Shadi Hamid on Peter De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb (1961):
This novel is both gorgeously written and rather bleak, from a writer, Peter De Vries, who goes by these days largely unnoticed. I read The Blood of the Lamb during the early peak of the pandemic, when what was becoming the new normal didn’t feel normal. The things we may have, just months prior, badly wanted or longed for seemed, all of a sudden, either small or beside the point. In one heartbreaking part, the protagonist, experiencing the (temporary) remission of his daughter’s leukemia, marvels, “It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.”
Michelle High on John McPhee’s Levels of the Game (1969):
I recently reread this old classic by a great writer. McPhee’s book beautifully weaves biography into a play-by-play account of the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. The book is heaven for the tennis enthusiast. A description of Ashe’s body movements as he launches his service toss conjures the exact image of him; the intangible elements of momentum and playing “loose” are given clarity. But there’s much to enjoy even for those who don’t play the game.
McPhee gives words to the intangibles, like the way the players’ physicality reflects their character. As Ashe describes Graebner, “There is not much variety in Clark’s game. . . . He plays stiff, compact, Republican tennis.” In contrast, in Graebner’s words Ashe is a stylist who “plays the game with the lacksadaisical [sic], haphazard mannerisms of a liberal.” Also to appreciate as 2020 come to a close are Ashe’s 1968 takes on race, activism, and progress.
Alexandra Hudson on Christopher S. Celenza’s Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer (2017):
I enjoyed this recent biography of the father of Renaissance humanism, Francesco Petrarch. Celenza, of Georgetown University, paints a vivid portrait of Petrarch as a man who had incredible passion for the ancients and wisdom of the past. Petrarch spent time with the works of Virgil and Cicero daily, conversing with them and engaging with their ideas as if they were his friends. Petrarch’s passion was also contagious. He was able to translate his zeal for ideas into a movement that had enough cultural staying power to transform and influence generations of thinkers after him. Celenza also offers readers a chance to inhabit Petrarch’s mind, guiding us through close readings of Petrarch’s writings, famous and lesser known alike. An ennobling read.
Josef Joffe on Norman Lebrecht’s Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847–1947 (2019):
Why the Jews? Why their astounding contributions to Western civilization after emancipation? Modernity was just right for the “People of the Book” after they were liberated from the ghetto. Suddenly, the curse of ancestry and faith mattered less than the gift of talent, creativity, and sheer ambition. The new world of science and industrialization produced the demand, and the Jews had the supply. It was a serendipitous age for both sides.
Sean Keeley on Phil Klay’s Missionaries (2020):
Like his acclaimed short story collection Redeployment (2014), Phil Klay’s debut novel is a gripping account of America’s modern wars told by someone who’s in a position to know: a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. Klay’s war fiction is characterized by unflinching realism, a meticulous attention to detail, and a moral seriousness that never settles for unreflective jingoism or its opposite. This one widens Klay’s scope, moving across timelines and narrative perspectives to settle in the countryside of Colombia, where American advisers are seeking to drum up support for the 2016 peace referendum. The fates of an American journalist, a U.S. military liaison, and Colombians on all sides of the drug war intertwine. I won’t spoil the surprises of this often brutal, always compelling book. Suffice it to say that Klay is good enough to recall two of my favorite authors: Like the late John le Carré, he writes from a perspective of worldly, wounded patriotism, often disappointed with his country yet implicitly calling it to be better; like his fellow Catholic Graham Greene, his tales of war-making and espionage are infused with a religious sensibility, finding grace in places you wouldn’t expect.
Craig Kennedy on Ben Lindberg’s The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players (2019):
One of the best books ever written about baseball is The MVP Machine. How to make a better pitcher or hitter? The answer involves physics, chemistry, physiology, psychology, and, yes, baseball. Lindberg, the host of a popular podcast, “Exceptionally Wild,” has pulled these various threads together and created a wonderful book.
Sydnee Lipset quoting Alice B. Toklas in Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933):
“Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as you were ever going to write that autobiography. . . . I am going to write it for you. . . . And she has and this is it.”
Michael Mandelbaum on the character Flashman:
Harry Flashman began his fictional life as a minor character, a bully who is expelled from the Rugby School for drunkenness, in the 1857 novel of Victorian piety, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes. The Scottish journalist George MacDonald Fraser (1925–2008) had the inspired idea of following Flashman’s military career after his expulsion, and published twelve splendid volumes between 1969 and 2005. The Flashman books combine history with humor and offer an entertaining source of diversion in the months ahead, as the pandemic continues to circumscribe our lives.
Flashman is a rake, a cad, a cynic, and, above all, a devoted coward. Through bad judgment, bad timing, or bad luck he finds himself caught up in some of the major events of the 19th century: the Afghan Wars, the Crimean War’s Charge of the Light Brigade (immortalized by the Tennyson poem of that title), the Indian Mutiny of 1857, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and Custer’s last stand, among others. He also manages to get himself entangled in both the slave trade and the Underground Railroad. Each time his only goal is to save his own skin, but he invariably emerges not only in one piece but with entirely undeserved credit for bravery. Along the way, he encounters, and provides pointed assessments of, some of the most famous people of his era, including Bismarck, Palmerston, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.
Like Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd, Flashman is fictional, but the accounts of the historical events in which he becomes involved are not only vivid, they are also accurate. The novels come, in fact, complete with footnotes: the conceit of the series is that they are Flashman’s memoirs, with Fraser merely contributing fact-checking and some light editing. Finally, a trigger warning: Flashman is resolutely and unrepentantly politically incorrect; but, then, so was the 19th century.
Laure Mandeville on François et Valentin Morel’s Endearing Encyclopedia of the Unuseful (Dictionnaire amoureux de l’inutile, 2020):
If you want to escape the ferocious and so often empty political and societal conversation that has established its reign in social media, if you want to reflect on the meaning of things in a refreshing and asymmetrical way in a manner that gently puts you upside down, read the deliciously refreshing French Endearing Encyclopedia of the Unuseful by comedian and essayist François Morel and his son, Valentin. You will learn that the seemingly “unuseful” is the indispensable.
Who cares about Andouillette, croissant, Camembert, or a glass of Calvados, ask the authors? Do we need them? They seem so superfluous—they don’t keep you healthy. But they make life much tastier, argue the authors. The same is true of chats, these bavardages that fill our lives about the weather, our hairstyle, or the type of underwear we favor. Chatting is not useful, “it is soft, and frivolous and light, superficial, vain . . . but it is the salt of human relations,” write the Morels. Same thing with the French Academy, which fortunately “has no use,” they write humorously, except for the fact that “in this world where everything has to be a commercial product . . . the Academy is there to say that there is still a space which negotiates with eternity.” “If contemporary human mind doesn’t deal with what lasts more than 10 years, it cannot conceive of what is a Cathedral, which took centuries to be built,” write the authors, who clearly had fun putting together the encyclopedia in a fluid and unpretentious form. In fact, with this unusual encyclopedia emerges a beautiful, witty philosophy of life. If you are a francophone, you will like it, especially in these times of coronavirus.
Damir Marusic on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929):
Three weeks ago, I picked up Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, simply because it was there on the bookshelf. I had read it once before, in high school, probably in AP English. Re-reading a book that is (among other things) about remembering had me remembering what it was like to read it the first time. I marveled that the young me had understood anything at all. Facing Faulkner in high school was difficult and frustrating, and had you asked me about it before the re-read, that’s all I could have told you.
And yet the visceral impact of several of the book’s episodes came flooding back: the mute Benjy uncomprehendingly looking up at Caddy’s muddied underwear as she climbs a tree; Quentin’s flashback argument with his nihilistic father that springs up moments before he drowns himself; Jason’s sadistic cruelty as he burns his concert tickets in the stove rather than giving them to the young grandson of his family’s long-suffering black servant Dilsey . . . maybe I understood more than I thought at age sixteen. Or maybe it’s just that powerful writing imprints itself on the impressionable mind, like an outline, and one colors in the shapes as one grows older.
Michael McFaul on Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020):
Reading is mostly a solo event, but you can watch Netflix together as a family in the COVID-19 era, and we have done so a lot. My favorite is the last episode of “The Queen’s Gambit,” mostly because I love how Russians are portrayed so positively, a rare occurrence in Hollywood. Hat tip to Garry Kasparov for his great work as advisor to that series.
Thomas O. Melia on Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016):
The only great parts of this pandemic year have been those moments I have gone to my sprawling pile of books TBR (to be read) and brought one out to the backyard to be transported far away in time and place and perspective. Having been enchanted by Colson Whitehead’s genius since The Intuitionist in 2000, I finally got to The Underground Railroad during this year like no other. In the book’s chilling, appalling depiction of the brutality of American slavery before the Civil War—Whitehead’s surrealist realism always amazes and captivates—I better understood the energy, passion, and justice in this year’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Joshua Muravchik on Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (2020):
Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, gripped me more than any of the other books I’ve read this year. The New York Times squib featured atop the Amazon listing calls it an “examination of harm and power.” I suppose it is that, but to me it was something more important: the opportunity to encounter the world through the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of another person. This is what I most seek in a novel, and Russell’s pitch-perfect verisimilitude delivers it powerfully. I’m looking forward to her next work.
Nicole Penn on Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (2020):
“Providential” is a word that comes to mind when thinking of the small grace 2020 gave us in the form of Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s highly anticipated sophomore novel. During a time when so many of us have spent months confined in quarters that have become depressingly familiar, nothing could be more apropos than the story of Piranesi, a young scientist who lives in a world comprised almost entirely of an infinite and seemingly inescapable array of hallways and vestibules. Its only other human inhabitant is a mysterious stranger who has enlisted Piranesi’s help in studying their unusual landscape to extract an ancient and powerful form of knowledge. But what Piranesi calls “The House” contains skeletons both real and metaphorical, and the more he plumbs its secrets, the more rapidly his world begins to unravel.
Piranesi is not just a work of fantasy or mystery, but an epistolary meditation on the surprisingly fine lines separating scientism and faith, solitude and friendship, horror and beauty. It is an exploration of the impulses that make us human. Most important, it invites us to consider whether the thin places connecting the mundane to the sublime might be found closer to home than we think.
Marc F. Plattner on Chekhov’s short stories:
Though I was familiar with (and not especially fond of) several of Chekhov’s plays, I had never read his short stories until this year. He wrote over two hundred of them in his short life (1860–1904). I read about thirty. They varied greatly in length, but almost all were worth reading. I found especially captivating one from 1889 entitled, “A Boring Story,” sometimes translated as a “dreary” or a “tedious” story. None of those adjectives is apt. It is a wonderful novella whose principal character is a professor nearing the end of a life marked by high career honors but also a disappointing family life. Besides telling a gripping story, it succeeds in unveiling with great psychological subtlety the vanity to which academics and intellectuals so often succumb. As with many of Chekhov’s other stories, it is easy to find a free PDF on the internet
Gary J. Schmitt on Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It (2019):
Just finished America’s Revolutionary Mind. Thompson’s effort is in the methodological tradition of his former teachers, the historians Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, but reaches beyond them in substance and depth.
Gabriel Schoenfeld on Michael Hentges’ Hollin Hills: Community of Vision: A Semicentennial History 1949-1999 (2000):
In 1949, as part of the postwar housing boom, the architect Charles A. Goodman set out to build a colony of modernist homes of modest and affordable size. As a brochure from the time described them, Hollin Hills “presents a variety of single and multi-level dwellings, carefully sited to exploit the wooded, rolling character of the land.” The end result today, just south of Alexandria, Virginia, is a historic district containing one of the largest collections of mid-century modern homes in the country. In the midst of the pandemic, I moved into one. The Goodman homes are a wonderful area to tour and, when you are good and vaccinated, feel free to get in touch and see the inside of one.
Lilia Shevtsova on Vitaly Mansky’s “Gorbachev. Heaven” (2020):
This documentary is an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev at his old wooden dacha outside of Moscow. Gorbachev will be ninety next March. He talks about his life, his love, his sufferings, and his view of the Universe before leaving it. An old man on crutches, but with such an amazing memory and sense of irony. “Do we have vodka?” he asks before sitting down.
This “Gorby Narrative” forces one to deliberate on the treacherous destiny, on hopes that become delayed disappointment, and on honesty in times of existential drama. Hopefully it will have a Western audience, too, but what a sad story.
Peter Skerry on Yael Tamir’s Why Nationalism (2019):
These days it seems helpful to be Israeli to write about nationalism. No, I’m not talking about Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, but Yael Tamir’s Why Nationalism, a much less noted yet more engaging treatment of the same topic. Tamir, who dedicates this slim volume to her teacher and mentor, Isaiah Berlin, has taught political theory, was a Labor member of the Knesset, and served as Israel’s minister of education and then of immigration absorption. Such practical political and policy experience undoubtedly helps explain her uncommonly insightful understanding of the genuine challenges mass immigration poses to the contemporary nation-state. But unlike most of her contemporary colleagues and comrades on the left, she argues that “there is a good reason why democratic welfare states are grounded in closure that ensures the persistence of stable and continuous communities.” And “as a grandma” who understands that “the love of humanity is a noble ideal, but real love is always particular,” she patiently and methodically dismantles the notion of civic nationalism. Commenting on contemporary American politics, Tamir hits some sour notes. Yet on balance I have seldom encountered a slim volume of such practical and theoretical wisdom.
Henry Sokolski on Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain (2018):
For anyone into understanding the deadly risks of complacency, this book is an excellent start. Avalanche risks demand obedience: Even if you make correct decisions on how to address them 99 percent of the time, if you travel avalanche terrain 100 days per year, you will get buried and die in one year. As someone worried about nuclear proliferation and the end of the world and who skis backcountry, I can relate.
Ben Trachtenberg on “Beowulf” (8th–10th century):
This year I reread “Beowulf,” and for the first time I read it aloud as everyone in the poetry criticism business advises. What a difference. As translator Burton Raffel wrote in his introduction, “Beowulf” illuminates history, archaeology, and linguistics, but its “position as a great poem must remain primary.”
“Hear me!,” the poet begins, and this command is obeyed more easily with ears than eyes alone. The poet sings of friendship, glory, loyalty, and treasure, along with less pleasant topics like the occasional warrior swallowed by a monster.
In 2020, there have been too few opportunities for adventures in far-off lands. Next year may we sail on, “Straight to that distant Danish shore,” or wherever a better year may take us.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe