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The Weekly Standard Holiday Reading Guide

Our holiday gift to you: We offer our choices for books to enjoy over the holidays or to consider as last-minute gift ideas.

11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002
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Editor's Note: We'll be on hiatus for the holidays, so next week, we'll be posting some of our favorite recent pieces from both The Weekly Standard and The Daily Standard--some holiday-related, some not. Enjoy, and have a terrific and safe holiday season!

William Kristol, editor

READ ANYTHING by the greatest living American comic writer (besides Andy Ferguson), Donald E. Westlake. I'd begin with any of the eleven Dortmunder books--John Dortmunder being the leader of a hapless gang of criminal misfits whose hilarious and poignant misadaventures Westlake chronicles. For those of you in a post-holiday mood for noir, pick up one of Westlake's thrillers starring the cold-blooded Parker, which appear under the pseudonym Richard Stark. But all of Westlake's oeuvre is very fine--and it's huge (almost fifty novels under his own name, another couple of dozen at least under pseudonyms)--so you can read used paperback after used paperback for weeks. (Don will be upset if I don't urge you to buy one or two of his books new, as well, so I hereby urge you to do that. And I suppose giving used paperbacks as gifts is considered by the unknowing to be a little tacky.)

For more on Westlake, re-read Steven Lenzner's article "The American Comedy" in our July 2/July 9, 2001, issue. But above all, start reading Westlake--and enjoy.

Fred Barnes, executive editor

THE BEST BOOK I read in 2002 and one I recommend to everyone is "Dominion" by Matthew Scully. It's about man's cruelty to animals and Scully's argument is pitched especially to conservatives and Christians. Forget about "animal rights." Scully makes the case--very persuasively--that we have a duty to protect animals, who are totally dependent on us, from the massive abuses that are now routinely and unthinkingly inflicted on them. Once you discover how pigs are raised for slaughter, for instance, you may decide to give up pork and bacon. I suspect I'll never be a vegetarian--I don't plan to be--but there are some things I'd just rather not eat.

Book two: "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser. I never read it in college and, yes, I know Dreiser was a leftie. But what a great book!

Christopher Caldwell, senior editor

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" for the first time in twenty years, for a review I was writing of a new translation by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. What an experience. Among other things, I noticed for the first time the elaborate parallels Tolstoy lays out between the superficially dissimilar courtships of Levin and Kitty on one hand, and Vronsky and Anna on the other. Either I had been too dumb and inexperienced for "Anna Karenina" the first time around, or the Pevear/Volokhonsky version marked a significant advance on the translations available in my youth.

Probably a bit of both, but my curiosity about Pevear and Volokhonsky was primed. I noticed that they had cut their translating teeth on Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground," "Crime and Punishment," and "The Brothers Karamazov." This week I started reading their version of Dostoevsky's "The Possessed" (they have retitled it "Demons"), which came out in 1994. Thus far it seems as great an achievement as their Tolstoy. I remember "The Possessed" as impressive, but in a lugubrious, earnest, ideological way. Again, my own undergraduate blockheadedness may be to blame, but the second time around, it reads like a different (and vastly more interesting) book. So Dostoevsky describes a piece of Romantic bathos by the champagne-leftist poetaster Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, in which the poet's "greatest desire is to lose his reason as quickly as possible (a perhaps superfluous desire)." He tells us that "many persons with the rank of general have the habit of saying ludicrously: 'I have served my sovereign . . .' as if they did not have the same sovereign as the rest of us." This eight-year-old translation ensures that Russian-speakers' insistence on a wry--even hilarious--side to Dostoevsky will never again fall on deaf Anglophone ears.

Claudia Winkler, managing editor

RECOMMENDATION to Boomers: Dig out your old Landmark books and Signature series biographies and read them to the nearest kid old enough to sit still for them. You'll see why they thrilled you 40 years ago.

I've just read "The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler" and half of "The Story of Winston Churchill" with a not-very-bookish 12-year-old, and he loved these exciting accounts of the lives of giant figures. I did too--and was pleased to find them historically respectable. The Hitler book is by William Shirer, who covered Nazi Germany firsthand and later made a study of the captured Nazi archives for his grownup magnum opus, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." The young people's version, while much shorter, is filled with quotations from original sources and eyewitness accounts, and it's illustrated with photographs.

Similarly, Alida Sims Malkus's account of Churchill's childhood is filled with anecdotes interesting to a kid--his scrapes and canings at boarding school, his brushes with death, his failed exams and special prize for reciting perfectly 1,200 lines of Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome"--all of which also turn up in a book I have by Churchill's granddaughter based on family sources like Churchill's childhood letters. My friend and I are just at the part where the 22-year-old Lieutenant Churchill is covering imperial skirmishes in the Himalayas for an Indian newspaper called the "Allahbad Pioneer," and Malkus gives us vivid snippets from his dispatches.

If you don't have these or any of the other marvelous Landmark and Signature titles on your shelves, you can find them through an Internet service specializing in out-of-print books (I use alibris.com). I guess these series are too politically incorrect to be reissued. But then to some readers that's a recommendation. To give you the flavor, here's the last paragraph of each of the books discussed here:

"The remembrance of the grisly world nightmare he provoked, of the millions of innocent beings he slaughtered, of the hurt he did to the human spirit, lingers on. The memory fades but slowly as the years pass and mankind resumes its ages-old effort to make the world a more decent place in which to live."

"He had led his countrymen in their darkest hour. He had suffered defeats, many defeats; yet he was never defeated, for he kept right on working for the things he believed in. He had become for all men an example of determination and courage. And his name will long be remembered throughout the civilized world."

Lee Bockhorn, associate editor

WHAT BETTER TIME OF YEAR than Christmas to ponder what it means to be a Christian--what it means for one's living, loving, grieving, and rejoicing? There are few better guides for this task than C.S. Lewis. And it's a singularly appropriate time to remember his work: 2002 marked the 60th and 50th anniversary, respectively, of the publication of two of his most famous and beloved books, "The Screwtape Letters" and "Mere Christianity," and 2003 will mark the 40th anniversary of Lewis's death.

Harper Books recently published a handsome boxed set of paperback editions of six of Lewis's most important books: "Mere Christianity" and "Screwtape," along with "The Problem of Pain," "The Great Divorce," "Miracles," and "A Grief Observed." The set would make a great gift for anyone not yet initiated into the writings of Lewis. Newcomers should start with "Mere Christianity," one of the best Christian apologetics ever written, and "Screwtape," a satirical collection of "letters" written by the elder devil Screwtape to his younger protégé, Wormwood, offering counsel on how to tempt men away from Christian faith. It's simultaneously hilarious and deeply serious.

The Harper Books collection omits two other terrific Lewis volumes which, like most of Lewis's books, manage to combine brevity and profundity. Anyone interested in the current debates over biotechnology, cloning, and stem cell research shouldn't fail to read "The Abolition of Man." Lewis's warning in this 1944 book seems especially pertinent today: "If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, then raw material he will be." Recently I read another of Lewis's best books, "The Four Loves," a wise meditation from a Christian perspective on the various types of human love (though the book is a worthwhile read for non-Christians as well). Lewis devotes a chapter each to affection, friendship, eros, and the most essential love of all, Christian charity, discussing their glories, absurdities, and dangers with wit and erudition.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE: If you're looking for something frothy and funny to read on the plane or during the occasional boring holiday moments with family, you can't go wrong with the novels of the prolific English humorist P.G. Wodehouse. Start with any of his famous "Bertie and Jeeves" novels, which chronicle the misadventures of the likable young nitwit Bertie Wooster and his ever-faithful (and mentally superior) butler, Jeeves. The best books in the series are arguably "Joy in the Morning" (now usually published under the title "Jeeves in the Morning") and "The Code of the Woosters." Just be prepared to deal with strange looks from your fellow passengers when you burst out laughing on the plane.

Victorino Matus, assistant managing editor

"The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid--America's First World War II Victory" by Craig Nelson

"THE FIRST HEROES" (which I originally reviewed for the Washington Post) is an awe-inspiring read about the famous Doolittle Raid: Roughly four months after Pearl Harbor, America did the impossible: It flew 80 men (many below the age of 30) in 16 planes deep into the heart of the Japanese Empire, bombing Tokyo, and sending the message that the sleeping giant had awakened. But the most harrowing experiences for the young American aviators took place after the attack when they were forced to bail out over China. A few Americans fell into the hands of the Japanese--with terrible consequences to follow. Nelson's minute details (such as how the Japanese chief of antiaircraft defenses had to commit suicide) are what make the book so memorable. But I leave it to you to discover the rest of them.

"The Gangs of New York" by Herbert Asbury

DECIDING TO READ the book that serves as the basis of Martin Scorsese's latest epic, I found myself completely absorbed in the dark underworld of 19th-century New York City. You think crime in the city was bad during the 1970s? Try the 1840s, when marauding bands of immigrants and nativists with names like the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, and the Dead Rabbits would terrorize Lower Manhattan, cut each other to pieces, and attempt to raze the entire city during the notorious Draft Riots. After all that has recently happened to the City That Never Sleeps, there's no better time to learn about the city's tumultuous history and hardly a more entertaining book than Herbert Asbury's 1928 "Gangs of New York." (And though some historians quibble over the veracity of its finer details, the overall picture is undoubtedly true and, at times, shocking.)

"Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy" by Joe Pantoliano and David Evanier

IT WASN'T ALWAYS happy times at the Pantoliano household. For instance, one day, when Joey was growing up in Hoboken, his mother accused his father of staying out late and cheating on her. His dad denied it: "'You're wrong, Mary. I was bowlin'. In fact, I got the proof right here,' he said as he cocked his head to the side and pointed to the trophy in his hand. 'Stick it up your ass,' she yelled as she jumped out of her chair and went right for the trophy, easily wresting it from Daddy's grip, and, in one brisk movement, slamming it hard over his left shoulder. Pieces of the trophy flew off of Daddy as he collapsed to the ground." But somehow Joe emerges from this raucous upbringing to become a great Hollywood actor and still have nothing but love for his family. Bella.

Stephen F. Hayes, staff writer

THE EASIEST WAY to make everyone on your Christmas list happy is to buy books by Bill Bryson. I've done this for several years in a row now, and not only have I gotten no complaints, but the books become a topic of discussion for every family get-together.

His best, in my view, is "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." That book is a compilation of Bryson's reflections on moving back to the U.S., his country of origin, from England, his adopted home of 20 years. It is side-splitting, laugh-out-loud funny. I read much of it on an airplane and delightfully got the most intriguing looks from fellow passengers as I howled uncontrollably. His description of a fancy dinner in New Hampshire is particularly memorable. Fantastic.

Bryson's second best book is called "Lost Continent." The author retraces his family travels from several decades earlier. It's a classic take on Americana, and again, you'll laugh out loud.

There's more. In "Neither Here Nor There," Bryson takes essentially the same European vacation he took when he was a hippie college student years earlier. His travels with his friend Stephen Katz, the same friend who accompanied him decades back, are memorable.

"Made in America" is Bryson's interesting if somewhat academic take on the roots of American English. It's interesting, but best consumed in small doses.

By far Bryson's weakest effort was his New York Times bestseller, called "A Walk in the Woods." It's the author's attempt to traverse the Appalachian Trail. I'm not giving away too much when I reveal that he fails. And the book, while it has some rather brilliant moments, is not nearly equal to his earlier efforts.

That said, buy anything written by Bill Bryson and your recipients will be happy. He is a genius.

Beth Henary, editorial assistant

"I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother" by Allison Pearson

THE BRITISH NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST Allison Pearson said in a recent interview that she wrote "I Don't Know How She Does It" because "it's just like this is what it's like." While a career girl's schedule and a stay-at-home mom's schedule are both hectic, a combination of the two is a recipe for sleep deprivation at best. With hedge-fund manager and mother of two Kate Reddy, Pearson has woven real women's tales of maternal guilt and personal ambition into fabulous fiction. Reddy's life plays out as one might imagine: Somehow (most of) what needs to get done gets done, even though it may be a sidebar to life, such as buying a child's birthday cake. "I Don't Know How She Does It," despite its obvious appeal to moms with careers (for whom an abridged audio version is available), is a book for all women, because women of all types play a part in it. It's for over-involved full-time moms Kate calls the "Muffia," known for their guilt-inducing powers, as well as working women without children, who should know to empathize with working moms if they have a hair out of place.

"Diversity: The Invention of a Concept" by Peter Wood

AN IMPORTANT BOOK for anyone closely following the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, Peter Wood's "Diversity" comes out very early in 2003; its release coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Bakke decision. Convincingly and with erudition, Wood, an anthropologist at Boston University, addresses what is likely to be the domestic policy issue of the first half of 2003--racial preferences. By exploring early Americans' fascination with seeing exotic lands, pointing out the commoditizing of "diversity," and examining the University of Michigan's affirmative action case on its merits, Wood's book earns a place near the top of the pile of literature debunking affirmative action. Here's an excerpt on Michigan's claim that members of underrepresented minority groups necessarily have unique experiences to bring to the university: "The translation of diversity from the realm of proxy-for-ideas to proxy-for-experiences still rests, at bottom, on group stereotypes. . . . If our experiences as members of racial groups were such good stand-ins for our ideas and opinions, we could cancel all future elections and just rely on the census."

Katherine Mangu-Ward, editorial assistant

AS YOUR NEAREST AND DEAREST gather 'round this holiday season, you will surely want nothing more than some escapist fiction more interesting than the grisly tales of your Aunt Mabel's sciatica. Every single one of the characters in "Cryptonomicon" is more interesting, clever, and engaging than your relatives--guaranteed.

This "cyberpunk classic" by Neal Stephenson has everything--WWII codebreakers, a Marine with a morphine addiction, a secret stash of Nazi gold, digital currency, and treasure-hunting with sonar. "Cryptonomicon" is one of those rare novels so good you find your left hand anxiously testing to be sure that there are lots of pages left to read. And there always are. At 928 pages, "Cryptonomicon" is an enormous book that careens between the 1940s and the 1990s, studded with clever wordplay and inside jokes. There's even an appendix explaining some of the simpler crypto if you are into that kind of thing. For more info, check out this interview with Stephenson.

"Cryptonomicon" is perfect for geeks, and the history buffs they grow up to be.

Rachel DiCarlo, staff assistant

FOR FORTY YEARS Joyce Carol Oates has written about the terrors of ordinary people living in modern America. Although on the surface her characters usually appear unremarkable, internally they are often disturbed and tormented by their own obsessions. In her 30th novel, "I'll Take You There," Oates gives a voice to a brilliant but neurotic young woman who leaves her broken home in the 1960s to study at Syracuse University. At Syracuse, desperately craving the stability she has lacked all her life, "Anellia," who never reveals her real name, pledges the elite sorority Kappa Gamma Pi. She quickly realizes she does not fit in. She is asexual and unhygienic. Her uncontrollable neuroticism alienates her from her sorority sisters. "I was a freak in the midst of their stunning, stampeding, blazing female normality," she laments. What's more devastating is the discovery that she has only been offered membership so she can help the other girls with their term papers.

Eventually Anellia's erratic behavior causes her expulsion from the sorority. She soon engages in an obsessive affair with Vernor Matheius, a black philosophy student trying to distance himself from the civil rights movement. After the murder of Medgar Evers, though, Vernor becomes unwittingly drawn into the movement and the affair abruptly ends in an explosive incident. The heavy description in the beginning of "I'll Take You There" can be a little distracting, but the careful psychology of Oates's characters makes it worth reading.

IN 1925 Lorelei Lee, a not-so-dumb blonde, burst into the Jazz Age and took on New York, London, Paris, and Vienna. Anita Loos's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is the hilarious "diary" Lorelei keeps because "a girl with brains ought to do something besides think." Sent to Europe by her protector Mr. Eisman, the Button King of Chicago, "to be educated," Lorelei mingles in English society, meets the Prince of Wales, and charms a wealthy curmudgeon into buying her a diamond tiara. Sightseeing in London she comments, "They make a big fuss over a tower that is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock." The city, she decides, "is really nothing."

Paris, though, "is devine." Lorelei stays at the Ritz, visits the "Eyefull Tower" and the "Foley Bergere," which" is "very very artistic," and she "is always hearing about someone named Louie the sixteenth who seemed to be in the anteek furniture business." In "the Central of Europe" she meets "Dr. Froyd," who "seemed to think I was quite a famous case." Finally, at home Lorelei marries Harry Spofford, a prohibitionist and Main Line millionaire who "senshures all the plays," and she becomes a movie star.

The archetype for the blonde bombshell gold-digger, Lorelei's taste for orchids and diamonds makes her seem narrow-minded, but she is far from naive. Her story has been lauded by everyone from George Santayana--who, when asked what was the best book of philosophy written by an American, replied, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,"--to H.L. Mencken, a mentor to Loos, who said the book "filled me with uproarious and salubrious mirth." "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is also an engrossing period piece that will send readers running to read its sequel, "But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes."