1 2 3 4 5 6 7
John B. Kienker
Managing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson
In recounting his efforts to help his son get into college, Ferguson explores "as many aspects of college admissions process as I could, to gain a deeper understanding of our country, of our age, and, ultimately, of ourselves." One of our finest essayists, he succeeds brilliantly, as ever, with plenty of laughs along the way, from the avalanche of college brochures that begin to clog his mailbox, to the college rankings, SATs, campus tours, and tips for gaming the system, which mark this absurdist annual ritual for American high school juniors. The most enjoyable book around for understanding how our colleges went from elite citadels for enriching the soul to glossy, soulless credentialing mills.
Conserving Liberty, by Mark Blitz
Contra Sam Tanenhaus, "American conservatism does not mean preserving forever the mistakes others have made," proclaims Mark Blitz, who in his new book gives a clear, concise, and robust defense of a distinctly American conservatism, one that cherishes liberty understood in terms of equal natural rights, virtue, excellence, and self-government (broad ends which allow Blitz to reflect along the way on the importance of religion, family, and even music and art). In fact, he notes, these principles used to define liberalism until "step by sometimes unwitting step," American liberals turned away from them. By recalling these principles to conservatives, and explaining them to liberals, Blitz provides solid—and he hopes again, common-ground for maintaining what is best in the American political tradition.
How Civilizations Die (And How Islam Is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman
With a refreshingly contrarian reading of history and its repercussions today, this lively first book from online columnist "Spengler" argues that "People are failing in their desire to live, fastest of all in the Muslim world." As Goldman sees it, Islam is attempting in 20 years the kind of secularist decline it took Europe 200 years to achieve. And despite America's appetite for folly, he still holds out hope for our exceptionalism. On foreign policy in particular, he strongly rejects both Bush and Obama doctrines, preferring instead an "Augustinian realism" more in keeping with our founding principles that allies with other nations that share our same loves, and ignores, seals off, or destroys those that don't.
The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, by Robert Reilly
Why it is that Spain translates more books in one year than all Arab countries combined in the past one thousand years? As Reilly explains, despite Islam's early tentative attempts to engage and assimilate Greek philosophy (as Christianity did), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali's overwhelming influence in the 12th century decisively snuffed out any place for rational thought within the religion. With Allah understood only as pure will, "creation exists simply as a succession of miraculous moments, it cannot be apprehended by reason." All that is left, then, is strict, unthinking submission to Allah, and to the innumerable pronouncements of appointed judges of sharia law (including, Reilly notes, why one can't let a donkey, a black dog, or a woman cross one's path while praying). And as this book brilliantly shows, just as the primacy of reason is a prerequisite of democracy, its loss leads inevitably to totalitarianism of one form of another, which is why today's Islamism has so easily assimilated Nazi and Communist ideologies.
Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, by Benedict XVI
With a dazzling command of Scripture and scholarship made accessible through his characteristically gentle, inviting manner, the former Cardinal Ratzinger offers a powerful meditation on the Pascal mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. However familiar with the gospel, readers are bound to find something striking in the pope's reflections, whether in the washing of the disciples' feet as a sign of sacramental confession, in the simultaneous slaughtering of the Passover lambs and of the Lamb of God, in the choice between Jesus and Barabbas (a name which translates, significantly, as "son of the father") as a choice between a savior of love and a violent earthly revolutionary, or in the image of the Church born from Christ (the new Adam) in the water and blood (baptism and Eucharist) that flowed from his side.
The Innocence of Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton
Celebrating its centennial this year, this is the first and best of Chesterton's five collections of mysteries featuring Father John Brown—especially the two lead stories, "The Blue Cross" and "The Secret Garden." With his quiet knack for being underestimated, Fr. Brown gets his insight into sin from his years in the confessional, and marshals both reason and revelation against criminals, charlatans, and skeptics. Chesterton's characteristic garrulousness is lighter here than in his other writings, and though a bit heavy-handed at times (especially as the series went on), his puzzles—and their sensible solutions—delight. The'70s television adaptation of Father Brown is very dated, but is worth checking out for Kenneth More's winning portrayal of the saintly sleuth.
* * *
Professor, Naval and Military Strategy, U.S. Naval War College
The role of contingency in shaping great political and military events continues to be seriously underestimated. Lewis Sorley's admirable Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam is only the latest in a series of studies over the last decade or so that in effect upend conventional narratives of the Vietnam War. Sorley's meticulously researched study, drawing on personal interviews with numerous senior American officers of the era, makes a compelling case that a great deal of responsibility for our Southeast Asian debacle rests with the commanding American general in the crucial period 1964-68, not with meddling civilian bureaucrats, politicians, or the institutional Army, let alone such factors as imperial hubris or failure to understand the enemy.
In previous works, particularly A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam and his very valuable Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, Sorley has also brought to light the central role of Westmoreland's successor, General Creighton Abrams, in altering the fundamental vectors of American strategy in Vietnam and (no less) creating the preconditions for eventual American victory.
This material should be supplemented by Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, which makes a powerful argument that it was the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 and its disastrous political aftereffects, rather than the inherent weaknesses of his regime or the strength of his communist opponents, that necessitated the massive escalation of the American military effort by the Johnson Administration in 1965. Diem's overthrow (and subsequent murder), Moyar shows, would very likely never have happened absent the pernicious meddling of another individual, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Those interested should also consult C. Dale Walton's The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam.
That all of this remains more than relevant to the recent American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan should be evident. Bob Woodward's The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008 tells the story of the turnaround in the war in Iraq resulting from the "surge" of 2006 and the extraordinary leadership of General David Petraeus. And for an understanding of how the occupation of Iraq went off track, Gordon W. Rudd's Reconstructing Iraq: Regime Change, Jay Garner, and the ORHA Story provides another insider perspective.
* * *
Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor of Political Science, Assumption College
Winston Churchill famously observed that a man must nail himself to the cross of either thought or action. Churchill himself lived a life of profoundly thoughtful action, and wrote books that endure for serious students of politics and history. In a wonderfully engaging work, The Forum and The Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined The World, From Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Ann Glendon explores how some of the greatest figures in the Western tradition have combined contemplative reflection with the life of action within the city. Some such as Tocqueville and Max Weber have been tempted by a life of action while excelling in reflection on the political condition of (modern) man. Some, like Plato and Rousseau, have profoundly shaped our understanding of politics and philosophy, from the edge of the city, so to speak. And others, such as Cicero and Burke, the heroes of Glendon's book, have been equal parts statesman and political philosophers, true "guardians of civility," as Bertrand de Jouvenel once aptly put it. The Forum and the Tower is a book that reminds us that we are obliged to do justice to the highest requirements of our humanity, torn as it inevitably is between thought and action.
Ideological despotism was the scourge of the 20th century, although the phenomenon is still scarcely understood as we enter the second decade of the 21st. What was most distinctive, most monstrous about totalitarianism was not mass violence, terrible as that was. What made ideological despotism such an affront to the human soul was what Solzhenitsyn called the "forced participation in the Lie," when men were forced to express their assent to the most obvious falsehoods and cruelties. Lying and betrayal became "forms of existence," defining a society that was in decisive respects phantasmagoric, and thus barely accessible to social science. With the publication of F. Flagg Taylor IV's remarkably comprehensive and expertly introduced anthology The Great Lie: Classic and Recent Appraisals of Ideology and Totalitarianism, we finally have a volume that fully conveys the soul of man under totalitarianism. Highlights include Alain Besancon's brilliant dissection of the "difficulty" of defining the Soviet regime (Aristotle's or Montesquieu's canonical classification of regimes do not begin to do justice to what was original about ideological despotism), Leo Strauss's "German Nihilism," as well as illuminating reflections by Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leszek Kolakowski, and Czeslaw Milosz. A brilliant essay by Pierre Manent ("The Return of Political Philosophy") argues that "totalitarianism was the experiment crucis for political philosophy" in the 20th century and that political philosophy, in its scandalous inattention to the world of the ideological Lie, was "found wanting."
Finally at this Christmas season, everyone who wants to understand the origins and human attraction of the Christian religion ought to turn to the marvelously synoptic discussion in Rodney Stark's The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion. Stark challenges so many commonplaces: that Christianity was a religion that appealed distinctively to the poor or the proletariat, that Islam is a religion of peace, that the Crusades ought to be a source of shame, that secularization is an inevitable byproduct of modernization, that the cumulative effect is a truly fresh appreciation of the place of Christianity in the rise of the West. Stark wears his immense learning lightly and writes with impressive lucidity.