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Editor, Doublethink magazine
The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton
Elmer Kelton, the Texan novelist, died last August at the age of 83. If you're not familiar with his work, make haste and pick up a copy of his 1973 masterpiece, The Time It Never Rained. Kelton was voted Best Author by the Western Writers of America—receiving twice as many votes as the runner-up, Willa Cather—and he certainly belongs to the pantheon of great Western writers: Larry McMurtry, Thomas Berger, and Wallace Stegner. "I can't write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible," Kelton once wrote. "I write about people five feet eight and nervous. "The Time It Never Rained tells the tale of one such nervous hero, the independent, old rancher Charlie Flagg, who is at battle with a terrible drought and an encroaching federal government. "I just want to live by my own light and be left the hell alone," Charlie says. What follows is both a gripping story of survival and a lament for the passing of the American West.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy
Which brings us to another Western writer, Helena native Maile Meloy. Meloy's latest offering is a collection of short stories, largely set in Montana, and, as its title suggests, it focuses on characters caught between duty and desire. Readers of her break-out novel, Liars and Saints, already know Meloy is a sympathetic writer, able to invest even her more unlikeable characters with humanity. But she's also a clear-eyed one, and a deep moral seriousness animates Both Ways. There's an insistent—and decidedly unhip—sincerity about her work. Adults behaving adulterously have provided the subject for many a short story collection (see: Updike, Cheever, Ford), but it's hard to think of another that treats infidelity—and the myriad other small failings of ordinary people—as unironically and as earnestly as Both Ways does. But Meloy, a traditionalist, both in style and subject, is used to bucking trends. Her strengths are stubbornly old-fashioned ones: a spare yet meticulous realism, concentrated character study, and, above all, the restraint and precision of her prose.
Gilead and Home, by Marilynne Robinson
I just reviewed Gilead and Home for the Fall CRB, and both deserve pride of place on your holiday shopping list. I won't wax enthusiastic too much (you can read the review for that), except to say that Gilead and Home are beautiful and wise novels—most in keeping with the season.
The Old Man and Me and The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy
Now, for some fun. The New York Review of Books recently republished these two comedic gems as part of its classics series (The Dud Avocado in 2007, and The Old Man and Me, just this year), and it's not a minute too soon. In her heyday, Elaine Dundy garnered raves from no less than P.G. Wodehouse, Groucho Marx, and Dawn Powell. Gore Vidal called her the "funniest woman writers in America." Both The Dud Avocado and The Old Man and Me follow young American girls set loose in post-war Europe, first in Paris and then moving along to London. But these are no innocents abroad—Dundy's heroines are unapologetically on the make. (Think Holly Golightly or Lorelei Lee.) The Dud Avocado, in particular, is a delight: a madcap romp through left bank Paris with the irrepressibly scatty Sally Jay Gorce. It's a book you can't help comparing to champagne—it's bubbly, sparkling, heady, and certain to leave you feeling giddy—even if the Pernod-sipping Miss Gorce "hate[s] champagne more than anything in the world next to Seven-Up." Plus, it features an introduction by the wonderful Terry Teachout. Dundy herself had a colorful life—perhaps even more so than Sally Jay's—including a tempestuous marriage to the theater critic Kenneth Tynan. It's all detailed in Dundy's charming autobiography, Life Itself! (The exclamation point is most definitely hers.) As she told an interviewer in 2007 at the age of 85, "I like to say that the outrageous and stupid things Sally Jay does, I did, and the sensible things she does, I made up."
John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989, by Steven F. Hayward
This well-researched and highly readable book is the second in Steven Hayward's two-volume account of Reagan's life and times. It performs a couple of extremely important services. First, while recognizing his flaws and mistakes, it explains his political skill and shrewdness. Second, it corrects the common misconception that the 1980s were a time of political civility. After reading about the harsh personal attacks on Reagan by Tip O'Neill (who called him "evil") and Geraldine Ferraro (who said that she did not consider him a good Christian), no one can seriously believe today's partisan rancor is unprecedented.
The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, by David Plouffe
This memoir of the 2008 presidential race by Barack Obama's campaign manager is two-thirds of a really fine book. When describing Obama's historically effective campaign for the Democratic nomination, Plouffe offers valuable insights. As he shows, "community organizing" was not merely a slogan, but the animating idea behind Obama's bid to win primaries and caucuses. Plouffe is remarkably candid here, acknowledging a major error: the failure to conduct a full vulnerability study on Obama, including his ties to Reverend Wright. But when the narrative turns to the general election campaign, the cant-to-candor ratio goes way up. Obama once pledged to seek an agreement whereby the nominees would stay in the public-finance system. Plouffe offers a tortured explanation of why Obama reversed himself instead of simply admitting the obvious: his candidate made a clear commitment, and when it become politically inconvenient, he reneged.
Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor, by Matthew Latimer
The author was a presidential speechwriter toward the end of George W. Bush's second term. His White House experience was fairly brief, so he expands his story with tales of his previous stints as a congressional aide and speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. With a couple of exceptions (Rumsfeld and Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona), Latimer paints most of the people he dealt with as self-serving oafs. Perhaps he is actually a very nice fellow, but his relentless negativity and tittle-tattle make him sound like...Squidward. As fans of Spongebob Squarepants know, Squidward is the obnoxious cashier who thinks he is superior to everyone else, but isn't. So why do I recommend this book? If you know any politically ambitious young people, you should give it to them with this caution: "Without intending to, the author makes himself look very small by trashing former co-workers and bosses. Read it, and resolve never to be that way."
Julie Ann Ponzi
Fellow, the Claremont Institute
Because so many other distinguished friends and scholars have contributed such a variety of fine, interesting books for your own consideration and contemplation, I offer instead a couple of books with which I have had great success and enjoyment in reading aloud to my children. Perhaps you will find a similar experience with them. And, at Christmas, what gift could be finer than the gift of sharing your mind and your heart with your children over a good book?
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
One of the most grating of all childhood whines is the cry of "Moooommmm...I'm bored!" Born ignorant—as they must be—of the world's many wonders, the cry of boredom seems to indicate a lack of curiosity and, perhaps, an unearned sense of self-satisfaction on the part of children. Perhaps it also indicates a lack of imagination and effort on the part of the children's parents...but let us draw a curtain around that painful suggestion (for who among us has kids who have not uttered this complaint?) as we examine a fable that addresses this timeless issue.
Norton Juster introduces Milo as a boy, "who didn't know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always." Nothing, we are told, interested him "least of all the things that should have." And this, of course, means that Milo found learning to be a big bore. But it is Milo's very boredom and indifference to the world around him that propels him—via a mysterious "tollbooth" appearing one day in his bedroom to "collect his fare"—into a parallel and chaotic universe with a cast of characters designed to help him discover a cause for wonderment in his own world by making him wish, desperately, to return there.
As Milo crosses the border between our world and this strange one, he encounters characters and situations that are either ridiculously literal (as a watchdog that is, quite literally half-dog and half...er, watch) or ridiculously ponderous, obtuse and abstract. The confusion of this world resulted from a civil war between two rival brothers in the Kingdom of Wisdom. One brother—Azaz—in an effort to expand the frontiers of Wisdom, founded the city of Dictionopolis which, of course, was a city devoted to letters. The other brother—known as the Mathemagician—founded the city of Digitopolis which, obviously, was a city devoted to numbers. Things got on swimmingly so long as their twin sisters, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, continued to hold sway over the brothers, forcing them to work together. But, when the brothers, in their last act of agreement, banish the sisters to a tower outside the kingdom, things quickly deteriorate as wisdom becomes caught between a faction of letters and a faction of numbers—where no one makes much sense at all.
Juster's story is both clever and captivating. The plays on words are entertaining and, in places, even laugh-out-loud funny—always for the grown-up reading—but often, even so clever as to tickle the fancy of a child as young as seven. For children new to the wonders of reading, writing and arithmetic but, predictably, bored by the tedium of daily drills and constant correction, it is a fresh reminder that there is a golden ring waiting for them if they can keep at their labors. And for parents, it is a joyful way to recapture some of the elementary wonder both of language and of mathematics, and to rekindle a fascination for Wisdom as a kingdom whose borders ought, ever, to be expanding.
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
I came to this great classic about the coming of age of a spirited and remarkably gifted young girl too late for it to have been a "kindred spirit" of my own youth. But I have always considered, since discovering her in my early 20s, that Anne is the female counterpart to our own Tom Sawyer. This is to say that Anne, the red-haired, quick-witted, plucky (but remarkably sensitive) orphan, is the quintessential American girl...or, at least, she would have been had she not been (at least in fiction) a Canadian.
To say Anne is like a female Tom Sawyer is also to recognize that she differs from him in significant ways. Her audacity is more obvious, for one thing. She cannot well hide her sentiments or opinions (and they are usually strong). And her scheming—while it does not always prove winning—does succeed in its higher purpose of sealing her place of esteem in the hearts of her people. If she is too dramatic, it is because she imagines big. If she is too earnest, it is because she stubbornly clings to the unshakeable faith that others will naturally enjoy imagining big alongside her. And, indeed, sometimes—to their great credit and profit—they do.
The lessons offered in balancing firmness with gentle persuasion, truthfulness with loyalty and honor, discipline with mercy, are timeless and presented in a narrative that is clear even to young children. You will be surprised at the sorts of conversations it may inspire in your children—sometimes even weeks after the book has been read and returned to its shelf. They are the kind of lessons that stick because they are artfully told and capture the imaginations—certainly of young girls—but also even of active little boys inclined to boredom or rebellion by the mere mention of "girl talk." I will confess that there are parts that run a bit long in overwrought descriptions of beauty and nature (or, worse!—dresses and finery) and they tend to try the patience of such boys, but the action of the story always comes around to justify the departure and, in so doing, teaches them a bit, too, about the attractions of contemplation before important action (to say nothing of judgment) and an appreciation for the beauty surrounding both.
Robert R. Reilly
Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council
This is the end of the bicentenary year of Haydn's death and of Mendelssohn's birth. If you have not yet observed these occasions, I have two wonderful ideas.
The Brilliant Classics 150-CD box of Haydn Edition (no, believe it or not, not the complete works—there is more) is a staggering gift. "Bargain" is hardly an adequate description of what is available here for $1 per CD or less (from various internet sites; start at Amazon). Included here are all the symphonies, vivaciously conducted by Adam Fischer, with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, and very good versions of the chamber music, and more and more and more! Treat yourself or someone else.
There is also a new 40-CD Brilliant Classics box, titled A Mendelssohn Portrait. It is incredibly inexpensive, available at many internet sites for less than $1.50 per CD and at the Berkshire Record Outlet for only $40, with good renditions of the symphonies, wonderful chamber and choral music, etc.
Now, two more ideas from the contemporary realm.
For those of you who think that Western high culture is dead or who reach for your guns when the word culture is mentioned, I have news for you. High cultureis musically alive and well in the works of young (younger than I)composers who survived the attempted suicide of Western music by the manic atonal serialists. Swiss composer Carl Rütti's compelling and dramatic new Requiem is exhibit A, and demonstrates the welcome news that faith is still alive in "old" Europe. Get it on the budget Naxos label.
Also on Naxos is 36-year-old (now, that is really young) Jonathan Leshnoff's music—his Violin Concerto, Distant Reflections, and String Quartet No. 1 on CD. These new American works (from Baltimore, where Leshnoff lives) have the immediate appeal of soaring lyricism and passion, but the attraction strengthens with further acquaintance because the music has an underlying introspective character of real depth.
Bruce C. Sanborn
Chairman, the Claremont Institute's Board of Directors
Lincoln, I have read, studied the Elements to see how Euclid demonstrated the truth of propositions, Lincoln and America being dedicated to "the proposition that all men are created equal." Euclid starts the first book of the Elements defining terms (a point is...) and setting forth a handful of postulates. Then in 30-some pages he proves 48 propositions, each following from and fitting precisely with the ones before. Reasoning through the mental pictures of geometry, Euclid demonstrates how to understand what most of us as adolescents were told in a formula of algebra. Euclid's reasoning in the Elements is clear, elegant, and moving. The edifice of his demonstrations is beautiful. I recommend using Green Lion Press's edition of the Elements; it is nicely sized and well laid out.
Another of my finds this year was Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. Like Euclid, Kant grounds his thinking on a few postulates (what he calls rational beliefs): for instance, that God exists and man is able and free to live according to reason. Kant proceeds by practical reason to demonstrate the doctrine of right and build an edifice of reasonable politics. The rights and duties of property, he reasons, are key to government, civil society, and the doctrine of right. Government exists to secure outward liberty for citizens according to the doctrine of right and thereby frees citizens to practice self-government according to the doctrine of virtue, Kant's doctrine that describes the ethics proper politics make possible. Kant's rational belief (which Lincoln likely would call our ancient faith) is that humans—in their humanity—are moral beings, free and able to reason. Therefore the imperative of virtue (freely reasoned to and freely given to oneself) is to treat our neighbors as equals, as ends in themselves and not merely as means to other ends. We ought, that is, to treat them in just the way we ought to respect and govern ourselves. Kant concludes his Metaphysics of Morals discussing how to educate the young to reasonable and moral practice. The Cambridge edition is good.
Perhaps the greatest novelist to write in English wrote Emma. The soul of Jane Austen's Emma lies at the confluence of The Course of True Love that flows from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and of Reasonable Practice from Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. At that confluence the two main estates in Emma, Hartfield and Donwell (heart's-field and done-well, my translations), also meet. In other words, in Emma, love suffers the tests of education in order to become reasonable and true. In her character, Emma is like many of us Americans (even at the highest political reaches): she grew up at Hartfield, inexperienced, and educated in refined nonsense "upon new principles and new systems" that bring a person dangerously close to being "screwed out of health and into vanity." Well intentioned but vain, Emma harms herself and those she stoops to help. The pain of her missteps gradually awakens Emma and helps her bring her feelings into line with reason and virtue. The gentle-farmer-teacher of Donwell, George Knightley (a name that evokes dragons, saints, and knights), also helps. Knightley treats Emma as he does himself, like a human being, able and free to love and reason.