[What with Christmas shopping, having a new cesspool installed, and nursing a not-very-well daughter through umpteen rehearsals and six performances of "The Nutcracker," I missed Kathryn's call for Christmas book recommendations. No prob: gives me an excuse for an extra column. Herewith, then, my books for the year.]
History. Britain in Revolution by Austin Woolrych. This only came out in November, and then only in Britain, but I jumped on Amazon-U.K. and ordered a copy right away, and am now reading it with great pleasure. Woolrych, who is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Lancaster, in the north of England, and who is now well into his 80s, is the real thing — an academic historian who doesn't talk down to the general reader, and who knows how to bring dry facts to life. Here he gives us the English civil war of 1642-51, one of the key events in the making of the modern world. A thing I am especially interested in when reading books about this period is the author's take on Oliver Cromwell. As is the case with that other great military commander turned politician, Dwight Eisenhower, there is much more to Cromwell than meets the eye, and it is a high test of the historian's art to present a rounded picture of the man, "warts and all."* Prof. Woolrych passes this test easily, giving Cromwell high grades on most subjects, failing him on none (not even the succession fiasco), and deftly exploding the anachronistic slanders about the Lord Protector running a "military dictatorship." My own son's middle name honors Oliver Cromwell. I was interested to learn from Prof. Woolrych that Sigmund Freud also named a son Oliver, in acknowledgment of what Cromwell, a notable philosemite, had done for England's Jews.
War. A fascinating sub-category of war books is the personal memoirs of combat soldiers, sailors and airmen. I have just caught up with a fine recent example of this genre, The War Journal of Major Damon "Rocky" Gause, which came out in 1999. Gause was a lieutenant with the Army Air Corps stationed in Manila when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He survived the Japanese assault on the Philippines, was a prisoner of the Japs but escaped, got away in a leaky small boat, and eventually made it across 3,200 miles of open sea to Australia. You should read a book like this once in a while to remind yourself how human beings behave in the furthest extremities of stress, danger and hardship.** "Rocky" Gause behaved supremely well, not only with astonishing courage, but with that uniquely American generosity of spirit and open-heartedness that made the G.I.s loved and admired around the world. Of a young Marine who cracked up and committed suicide during the terrible shelling of Corregidor, Gause notes sympathetically: "That can happen to any fighting man … the wonder is that more of our men didn't break mentally." Gause writes with unaffected honesty, making it clear that he was often scared witless — on a trip into Japanese-occupied Manila, for example, disguised as a Spaniard. He is also frank about the bestial cruelty of the victorious Japanese in their victory frenzy — a topic it is now thought impolite to speak of, but which is important in understanding the mentality of allied fighting men in the Pacific theater.
Science. It is a measure of the impact Steven Pinker's new book The Blank Slate is having that it has brought the SPCDH*** out in force. Lefty human-nature-denying psychologists and sociologists are crawling out of the woodwork, saying: "Hey, we never believed any of that stuff Pinker says we believed!" Oh yes you did, guys. What's more, you sold it to the public, who elected politicians who made crackpot legislation out of it — most recently, the No Child Left Behind Act, which, if I have understood it correctly, says that if you didn't graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School, the reason can only be that you are a victim of racism, sexism, or some other -ism. Wrong-headed ideas about human nature attained such dominance in the twentieth century that we have a very big ship to turn round here, and it's going to take a while to get her on a true course. Pinker's book is an excellent start, though, and an encouraging sign that the age of wishful thinking about human nature, human differences, and human potentialities may be reaching, if not its end, at least the beginning of its end.
Current Affairs. The greatest scandal in American life right now is the government's tolerance of illegal immigration. Not even 9/11 did anything to stir the Establishment — the media, the judiciary, Congress, labor unions, big business, the churches — from their stupid, anti-patriotic complacency. They have thrown a blanket of political correctness over the whole topic, so that ordinary Americans, who overwhelmingly want illegal immigration stopped and the law-breakers repatriated, are afraid to speak. At a Christmas party, I was talking to a neighbor who runs a small landscaping business. He started in the early 1980s, right out of high school, mowing lawns and trimming hedges. In the early 1990s, he told me, the Hispanics, most of them illegals, had started to pour into Long Island and had undercut him. "If I could mow a lawn for $100, they'd do it for $75." By hard work and study he graduated into horticulture and landscaping — "Ordinary garden work is a lost cause now." I let fly with a few choice opinions about illegal immigrants. My neighbor listened to me with a widening smile. "Oh, boy, those are just the things I've been thinking! I don't like to say them out loud, though. You never know who you're talking to …" This horrible, scandalous state of affairs has been brilliantly exposed by Michelle Malkin in her book Invasion. I think this is my book of the year.
Criticism. Roger Kimball just keeps getting better and better as a cultural critic. In Lives of the Mind he takes a leisurely, effortless canter through the lives and work of eighteen writers — novelists, political scientists, academic philosophers — scattering strange facts, memorable anecdotes, sharp insights and clever apothegms on every page. Did you know that Wittgenstein was a supremely accomplished whistler, who could whistle entire concertos to piano accompaniment? And which Victorian novelist recollected the time when, as a schoolboy, he was stopped in the street by his headmaster, and asked whether it was possible that his school should be disgraced by so dirty and unkept a boy? "He must have known me," added the novelist, "for he was in the habit of flogging me constantly. Perhaps he did not recognize me by my face." Perfect bedtime reading: brilliant, funny and stimulating.
Fiction. My fiction reading is, as usual, a century or so behind the times. I have recently discovered the novels of Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), which are weirdly funny in a way I can't quite put my finger on — a sort of cross between Jane Austen and a Seinfeld script. Sample (from Nightmare Abbey): "Mr. and Mrs. Hilary brought with them an orphan niece, …, who had made a runaway love-match with an Irish officer. The lady's fortune disappeared in the first year; love, by a natural consequence, disappeared in the second; the Irishman himself, by a still more natural consequence, disappeared in the third."
* Though this is the most famous of all Cromwell quotes, these were not Cromwell's actual words. What he actually said to Peter Lely, the man who had been hired to paint his portrait, was: "Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it."
** Another fine recent example, from a WW2 sailor, is Alvin Kernan's Crossing the Line .
*** That is, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses, a secret cabal first unmasked by the late Arthur Koestler, its machinations described in detail by me in the pages of National Review.