Richard Aldous on Nick Hornby’s Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius (2022)
Nick Hornby has been one of my favorite authors for thirty years now since reading Fever Pitch—his first book and the greatest ever written on football (a.k.a. “soccer”). His trademark style is a self-mocking world-weariness blended with an almost childlike wonder about the things that matter most to him in life, namely books, music, and football.
In his latest work he pulls in two of the three with an unlikely pairing of Dickens and Prince. Along the way there are some nice side swipes at creative writing gurus of the write-for-tomorrow-not-today and cut-until-you-can-cut-no-more variety: “Dickens, one presumes given his schedule, did none of these things.” At the end of the day, what matters is whether a book or a song endures and whether it is loved. “There isn’t much to it other than that, is there?” he asks. Thirty years on and Hornby is still turning out diamonds and pearls.
Daniel Chirot on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray (1955)
Rarely has an author so well captured what life might have been like for poor Jewish villagers in 17th-century Poland after a series of deadly pogroms. Trapped by their misery, persecuted and ever fearful of another massacre, terribly superstitious and bound by their own oppressive social conventions, they hope for relief from a reputed messiah who is, of course, a monumental fraud. Only a writer so deeply steeped in Jewish tradition could so movingly recreate what it must have been like.
But at the same time, this novel has meaning for all times, including our own. It tells us what it is like to be mired in a terrible environment—wars, persecutions, poverty, all rolled into one. And it reminds us that the all-too-common reaction is to cling to archaic superstitions and traditions while waiting in vain for a magic deliverance brought by a long-sought savior who somehow never really comes. Yet, we must have sympathy for those people, and understand them, and see how they are fooled into clinging to what hope and joy they can muster, no matter how irrational that might seem to us. If beset by what they endured, would we react any better? Or, would we courageously face reality? Singer concludes the book this way: "Let none attempt to force the Lord to end our pain within the world. The Messiah will come in God's own time."
Charles Dunst on James Michener’s Hawaii (1959)
I’d never been to Hawaii. So, after being invited to speak at a U.S. military conference in Honolulu, I knew that I would have to read something—something great—about the islands before touching down in Oahu.
At the recommendation of a family member, I bought James Michener’s 1,100-plus page novel, Hawaii (1959). The book—as are most of Michener’s—is a sweeping multigenerational saga, taking readers from Hawaii’s geological formation all the way into modernity. With his guidance, we learn in exceptional detail about the native Hawaiians, the Chinese and Filipino immigrants, and the White missionaries who made Hawaii what it is today.
Rarely, if ever, have I put down an 1,136-page book wanting more, but Michener’s Hawaii is anything but normal. It is a book that I struggled to put down, and one about which I will be thinking for a long time to come.
Kate Epstein on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932)
Rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society this year reminded me why it’s one of my favorite books. Stylistically, Niebuhr wrote with beauty and power. Substantively, he wrote with exceptional moral rigor and honesty. One never gets pat answers from Niebuhr. Reason has its strengths, but it also has its weaknesses. Faith is vital, but it is also dangerous. Some chapters are a bit dated, I think, speaking more urgently to the times in which Niebuhr wrote than to today. But in general, the book maintains a thundering relevance, because Niebuhr’s central preoccupations are eternal: how to balance action with doubt, how to maintain humility without paralysis, how to live with integrity in the face of moral dilemma and complexity. I wish it could be assigned reading for everyone.
Mathilde Fasting on Edmund de Waal’s Letters to Camondo (2021)
Edmund de Waal has written a new book about his relatives, this time about Count Moïse de Camondo. De Waal had his international breakthrough with The Hare with Amber Eyes, the story of his Ephrussi/Rothschild relatives, who lost their entire fortune, and many of whom ended up in Auschwitz.
In Letters to Camondo, de Waal explores the story of a French Jewish family that settled in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century in a magnificent house filled with beautiful art, furniture, and exquisite details–the manor known today as the Musée Nissim de Camondo. In de Waal’s semi-fictional retelling, he discovers an extensive archive in the attic, a treasure trove of imaginary letters. While the letters’ recipient cannot respond, the answers to the letters lie in the house’s treasures.
The Musée Nissim de Camondo can be visited today. The beautiful rooms, art, and objects can be admired. My recommendation is twofold. Read Letters to Camondo, and should you be in Paris, visit the Musée Nissim de Camondo with the letters in mind—lacrimae rerum.
Francis Fukuyama on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009)
I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian science fiction lately. Many books now center around climate change, and one of the most imaginative is Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (thanks to Noah Smith for pointing me in that direction). It’s set in a future Thailand in which the Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt conflict has morphed into a deadly rivalry between the Environment and Trade Ministries. Pandemics are a regular occurrence and global trade has been shut down. Airplanes have been replaced by dirigibles, and megadonts (genetically engineered mastodons) provide power and transportation in place of trucks and motors. There’s a lot of East Asian cultural background here that makes it very different from, say, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake series.
Adam Garfinkle on John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)
John Updike’s 1996 bestseller In the Beauty of the Lilies has become part of the pantheon of fictive meditations on the thick sinews of Protestant Christianity that run deep and wide within the American body social and politic.
It tells a multigenerational family tale starting in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1905 and ending four generations and eighty years later in a Waco-like conflagration near Bighorn, Colorado. When I read the book a quarter century ago I marveled at Updike’s storytelling skills despite being unable to bond emotionally with any of the characters—rather like how I have since felt about Marilynne Robinson’s multigenerational Christological stories spread out in multiple books.
This year’s deliberately slower second reading collided with my more mature ruminations on the wider topic of Protestantism’s shaping of a nation rushing through time, and itself being reshaped in the process. The collision revealed more of Updike’s prophetic shrewdness amid his formidable literary skills than I discerned the first time around. Now that we live truly in an age of spectacle, something still inchoate in 1996, the dancing demons and angels of the Protestant bequest to America appear far more vivid to me. The book didn’t change as time passed, but the reader did.
Suzi Garment on David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (2016)
Last year my luck ran out, and I got very sick. I would have gone to a private hospital, but I knew a doctor at Bellevue, the great public hospital of New York City. I had faith. It wasn’t misplaced.
Most patient rooms at Bellevue have something wrong with them—a missing sink, a half-done paint job, incidental mold. But experience—three husbands’ worth—confirms that generally there are no better doctors than you’ll find at Bellevue.
Oshinsky chronicles the enduring contrast. By the mid-twentieth century, Bellevue’s association with the social disorder of the era led to calls to privatize or close it, but in the 1980s, with AIDS ravaging New York City, it was clear that the city needed Bellevue. When Superstorm Sandy forced Bellevue’s closing for the first and only time in its history, the evacuation of its patients was nothing short of heroic. When Dr. Craig Spencer returned from Africa with Ebola, it was Bellevue that received and cured him.
They managed a hellishly difficult diagnosis for me, too. More power to them.
Jeffrey Gedmin on Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese’s Fats Waller (1977)
Music is to be loved for music’s sake. But in music there’s also riveting and revealing history, personality, and cultural heritage. Take the music, life, and legend of jazz pianist and singer Fats Waller. Try the biography by his son Maurice.
There’s such life and delicious serendipity in this story. Waller’s career was launched at a soiree hosted by George Gershwin. At another party, he met Al Capone. That was in January 1926, when the twenty-one-year-old musician was kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to play at the twenty-seven-year-old gangster’s birthday party.
Fats Waller left some 400 copyrighted songs, serious jazz influence, and overall tremendous musical impact. He was the first African American to compose the music for a Broadway hit. As for that party for Al Capone, the initial fear melted away—Waller had been abducted by four men outside a Chicago music venue late at night—as Fats was tipped a hundred bucks for each song he played and plied with copious amounts of food and champagne.
Nils Gilman on Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (2020)
When We Cease to Understand the World is an extraordinary meditation on the relationship between genius and madness, telling a series of interlocking stories focused on the scientists who participated in World War I—itself presented as an episode of collective madness—who went on to discover and describe quantum mechanics. Beautifully written at a sentence-by-sentence level, it draws an extraordinary narrative arc that starts as straight history of science, explores at length the excruciating processes of intellectual discovery, and ends in a psychological erotic horror story narrated from the sexual predator’s point of view.
Devorah Goldman on Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
The Bonfire of the Vanities: not the cheeriest pick, but a gritty, darkly funny indictment of racial politics, particularly as they played out in New York City in the 1980s. Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel is famously cynical, but in retrospect it seems almost prophetic. To explain why would be to spoil a good deal of the plot; read it, and then read about (or revisit) the Crown Heights riots of 1991.
Matt Hanson on Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (2020)
It’s easy to see that James Baldwin has become increasingly relevant in the past few years. He’s been the subject of the feature documentary I Am Not Your Negro, while clips from his speeches and talk show appearances circulate widely. Scholar Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., decided to take a deep dive into Baldwin’s work and legacy and the result is this slim but pithy volume, a combination of travelogue about Baldwin’s France, literary scholarship, and social commentary. It’s a moving, carefully and lovingly analyzed assessment of a crucial American voice.
Michelle High on Patience Marime-Ball and Ruth Shaber’s The XX Edge: Unlocking Higher Returns and Lower Risk (2022)
Interested in seeing more women in the boardroom but skeptical about the relationship between social causes and companies’ bottom lines? Patience Marime-Ball (disclosure: a friend) and Ruth Shaber have brought data to the table to help convince. The average woman, research shows, tends to consider the long-term view and be lower ego and more “risk aware” than the average man, which leads to a different investment calculus. “When women share in leadership and financial decision-making,” there are “enhanced outcomes for individuals and economies.”
A highly engaging read, thanks in part to the authors’ varied backgrounds in finance and medicine and their broad, global lens.
Josef Joffe on Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986)
Trigger warning: This book will shock and depress. Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow is about the Ukrainian “Holodomor,” Stalin’s genocide-by-starvation in the early 1930s, which claimed the lives of some five million at the low end and ten according to the highest estimate. Though published a generation ago, this meticulously researched work is still relevant (and heartbreaking) today as we watch Putin’s pitiless war against Ukrainian cities and civilians. The cruise missiles are new, the purpose is the same: breaking the country’s will to resist the Russian Behemoth next door.
This magnificent book sets the stage for our time by reaching back ninety years. Today Putin claims that no civilians are being attacked. If the facts can’t be denied, they are reduced to unfortunate accidents. Back then, one politruk (political officer) was at least brutally honest about the Holodomor: “It was a fight between life and death.” The famine had to “show them who was boss.” The purpose then was “de-Ukrainization”; today the watchword is “de-Nazification” to pretty up naked imperialism.
In the 1930s, the world did not pay attention. Today, the West imposes ever-harsher sanctions, while helping Kyiv with sophisticated weapons and billions in cash. “In our days,” writes the German author Christine Brinck in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, “Ukraine has a chance, which it never had during the Holodomor.”
Sean Keeley on Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War (1979)
Few books gave me more unmitigated reading pleasure this year than Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. Fans of the 2003 blockbuster Master and Commander know the main players. Captain Jack Aubrey is a gallant captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars; his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin is a learned naturalist who serves as a shipboard surgeon and reluctant spy. The relationship between these two—one an unreflective man of action, the other an intellectual bruised by lost idealism—is one of the most deftly sketched portraits of male friendship I’ve ever encountered.
And then, of course, there is all the fun stuff: dashing chases on the open sea, cat-and-mouse games with French rivals, and even some Austenesque romance, all rendered with impeccable period detail and literary wit. My favorite so far? Book #6, The Fortune of War, which finds our heroes holed up in Boston during the War of 1812—but check in with me after Christmas, once I’ve curled up with The Ionian Mission.
Craig Kennedy on Laurent Binet’s Civilizations: A Novel (2019)
Imagine a world where the Inca capture the Iberian Peninsula and become a European power until . . . well . . . the Aztecs take over. Laurent Binet has written a wonderful novel that plays with history and ideas. What if other advanced civilizations had had the capability to sail across the Atlantic to the New World? And, if you like it, he has written two other novels, The Seventh Function of Language and HhHH, which are equally provocative but in very different ways.
Charles Lane on Milan Kundera’s The Joke (1967)
Though first published sixty-five years ago in Europe, there was no more eerily relevant book in 2022 America than The Joke, by Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Massively popular in the West during the late Cold War, Kundera is somewhat forgotten today. The subtly tortuous Communist rule he explored seems a part of the distant past; literature has moved on to new conflicts based on race, gender, and sexuality.
Yet The Joke cries out for rediscovery, precisely because of culture’s preoccupation with identity, and the new taboos—official and unofficial—this is generating. Kundera’s protagonist gets in hot water when his party comrades discover that he sent his girlfriend a postcard inscribed with a witticism of his own invention, whose punch line is “Long Live Trotsky!” His protests that it was just a joke are in vain, his downfall inexorable.
It would be reassuring to say this fiction bears no relation to the actual contemporary predicaments of people as different as stand-up comedian David Chappelle or former Washington Post reporter David Weigel. But it would not quite be true. Humor is the most subversive of human instincts.
Tod Lindberg on Laurent Binet’s Civilizations: A Novel (2019)
American Purpose asked us to review our favorite “off-topic” read of 2022. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what counts as reading unrelated to professional interests, because one never knows when one will end up leaning on something. Contemporary French novels, however, seem sufficiently far afield to be fair game, not least because I read them in translation.
At the risk of guilt by association, I will express a special fondness for Michel Houellebecq, Emmanuel Carrère, and Laurent Binet. Binet’s most recent, Civilizations (2019), appeared in English in 2021.
Binet likes plenty of fact to his fiction. His HHhH (2010) tells the story of the assassins of the Nazi bigwig Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. The Seventh Function of Language (2015) is a detective novel set in the near-real world of postmodernist critical theory, in which a stolidly bourgeois police inspector investigates the 1980 real-world death of the critic Roland Barthes, who was hit by a laundry van in Paris and died a month later. In the real world, it was an accident. Binet asks, or was it?
In Civilizations, we are in alternate history mode on the grandest possible scale. What if the voyage of Columbus had ended in failure, the explorer never to return to Spain? What if the Incan ruler Atahualpa, fleeing military defeat, put to sea in the direction of the rising sun in search of a land said to possess great cities and wealth beyond measure? If, as luck and Binet would have it, Atahualpa happened to reach Lisbon on the fateful day in 1531 when a tsunami wiped out the city, it might be but a few shrewd political steps to the Incan conquest of a New World.
Read it to learn what Titian would have painted under the circumstances.
Sydnee Lipset on Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
The 40th anniversary edition of Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory was published this year. I am lucky to call him a friend. This extraordinary writer, the son of Mexican immigrants, began school in Sacramento, California with fifty words of English and later studied at the British Museum.
The New Yorker wrote, “His sentences are reliable joys,” while the New York Times Book Review insightfully noted, “Mr. Rodriguez offers himself as an example of the long labor of change: it’s costs, about which he is movingly frank, its loneliness, but also its triumph.” In September Richard joined us for a conversation with Paul Elie, a senior fellow with Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
R. Jay Magill Jr. on Fabrizia Lanza’s Olive: A Global History (2017)
I am an olive enthusiast, and this compact little gem of a book, by Italian food scholar and chef Fabrizia Lanza, offers nothing less than a delicious cultural history of the olive and its luscious golden oil. Beginning with the olive’s prehistoric roots—the wild tree seems to have been discovered around 10,000 BCE—Lanza brings to the reader a multifaceted tour de force on the olive’s uses, meanings, and flavors since it was domesticated around 4,000 years ago across the Mediterranean basin—in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Turkey, and Croatia. Ancient writers such as Virgil, Homer, Cato, and Pliny wrote glowingly of the olive. It figures in origin myths of entire civilizations—the twins Artemis and Apollo and Romulus and Remus are all born under an olive tree, the mark of divine ancestry.
But it is perhaps an epigram by expatriate British writer Lawrence Durrell, from Prospero’s Cell, a guide to his adopted home of Corfu, that illustrates the lure and meaning of this salty fruit with perfect, sweeping eloquence: “The entire Mediterranean seems to rise out of the sour, pungent taste of black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat and wine, a taste as old as cold water. Only the sea itself seems as ancient a part of the region as the olives and its oil, that like no other products of nature, have shaped civilizations from remotest antiquity to the present.”
Michael Mandelbaum on Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond Mystery Novels (1991 onward)
The golden age of British detective fiction between the two world wars produced three memorable detectives: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Peter Diamond—the creation of British mystery novelist Peter Lovesey (happily still publishing at age eighty-six)—belongs in their company, although Diamond works as a police detective rather than operating on his own. Peter Diamond is based not in London but in Bath—a city scenic enough and with enough history to play an important role in his adventures. The twenty-one Diamond novels to date exhibit the stylish writing of Sayers, the well-drawn characters of Allingham, and the ingenious plotting of Christie.
The latest volume, Showstopper, involves unexplained disappearances from a hit television show, perhaps as an indirect suggestion that Diamond, like Poirot, Wimsey, and Campion, deserves a television series of his own. Even confined to the printed page, though, Peter Diamond’s cases make for vastly enjoyable reading.
Joshua Muravchik on the novels of Annie Ernaux and Marian Palaia
I have recently gotten great pleasure from some fine works exploring bonds of family with all their power and pain. In my ignorance, it took an algorithm from Amazon to introduce me to Annie Ernaux, whom I subsequently learned just won the Nobel Prize. Her work has more circulation in French than in English, but much or all is available in translation. I just finished A Woman’s Story and A Man’s Place, mini biographies of her mother and her father. Both are short, scarcely novella length. What makes them extraordinary is not only her evocative lyrical style but that her purpose in each is to square her relationship with the deceased parent, something she refers to as “fractured love.” How many readers won’t recognize that feeling?
Not long before, also thanks to an algorithm, I picked up a first novel by Marian Palaia, The Given World. A girl grows up, one of two children, on a farm in Montana, a fairly isolated existence, as one might imagine. The sun that warms her is her adored older brother. Then, he enlists and goes off to Vietnam and disappears, one of the estimated 1,200 American MIAs in that war. For her, this is a wound so grievous and at such a vulnerable stage of her life that the decades that follow amount to a ceaseless struggle to make herself OK. What more apropos of the holiday season than these poignant mediations on family love?
Nicole Penn on Emily Wilson’s Translation of Homer’s The Odyssey (2017)
Resolving to rectify my woeful lack of familiarity with the Greek classics, I decided to pick up Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey earlier this year. And what an adventure it became! Her crisp, modern prose, designed to be read aloud, succeeds in collapsing the nearly three thousand years separating us from Homer even as it beautifully captures antiquity’s alien nature. Wilson makes no bones about The Odyssey’s discomfiting standards of virtue and justice, and it is hard not to feel annoyed by the strictures “wise” Penelope faces while “cunning” Odysseus cavorts with goddesses or to feel disturbed by “bright-eyed” Athena’s unrelenting bloodlust. At the same time, the distinctive voices that Wilson crafts for the many gods, monsters, slaves, noblemen, and even dogs that comprise The Odyssey’s world make it easy to “break bread” (as Alan Jacobs puts it) with this marvelously humanized cast of heroes.
Dalibor Roháč on James Palmer’s The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia (2008)
Although James Palmer’s The Bloody White Baron is not a recent book (it was published in 2008), I was delighted to discover it this year. The book provides an account of the delirious and violent life of Count Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.
During the Bolshevik Revolution, Ungern-Sternberg was a White Army commander in the Far East. There, he formed his Asiatic Cavalry Division, which would support the short-lived restoration of the Mongolian Empire under Bogd Khan, fighting off both the Red Army and the Chinese occupational force in Mongolia. Ungern-Sternberg’s forces were outnumbered by the Bolsheviks but successfully resisted until his capture in August 1921 and execution in September of that year. A rabid antisemite with a fascination with Buddhism and the occult, the “mad baron” remains one of the most bizarre and brutal figures of the febrile years that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. A great way to distract oneself over the holidays!
Carolyn Stewart on Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020)
“Keep Calm and Carry On.” We have all seen this phrase slapped on mugs, aprons, and assorted tchotchkes in recent years. But Erik Larson’s book on the London blitz imbues this old saying with fresh poignancy.
The Splendid and the Vile centers on England in the desperate early months of World War II, as Germany unleashed nightly bombing raids across London and other cities in an effort to force Britain’s surrender. Larson weaves together a dozen plotlines at a galloping pace, taking us to an underground jazz nightclub moments before its annihilation by a German bunker buster; to a London rooftop as Winston Churchill accidentally sits on an active chimney while observing an incoming raid; and into the skies above the English Channel as RAF and Luftwaffe pilots dogfight in the gloom. All true, and carefully researched—a reminder of how popular authors have plenty to offer as storytellers of history.
Much ink is dedicated to Churchill’s inner orbit, but also, the lives of common Londoners. We see valiant women and men trying to live their lives, work their jobs, and feed their families amidst unrelenting Nazi assault. It is sobering to realize that, eighty years later, Ukrainians face similar conditions. They are the new standard-bearers of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit, offering the rest of the world a new definition of courage and resilience.
Daniel Stid on Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion: A Novel (2022)
If the past is another country, Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion, set amid the transatlantic diaspora that occurred following the English Civil War in the mid-to-late 1600s, conjures countries as far from the United Kingdom and the United States today as the East is from the West. The novel is a study of three characters, two set in desperate flight, one in relentless pursuit, by “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion.” Parliament passed the act in 1660, after the Stuart monarchy and Charles II were restored to the throne, to settle outstanding accounts from the Civil War. The act combined a general pardon for some with condemnations and brutal executions for others; namely, the forty-nine regicides who in 1649 signed the death warrant for Charles I.
Whether two of the regicides, a father and son-in-law, will suffer gory fates at the hands of an obsessive servant of the Privy Council drives the plot. The burdens of loneliness, religious zeal, political corruption, and exile are borne by the hunted and hunter alike. I read this book in one gulp.
Image: Paul Signac, Still Life with a Book, 1883, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. (WikiArt)
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