From Waterloo to Palomar, from children’s fiction to philosophy, our contributors and friends again provide their summer reading lists.
I hope to spend this summer soaking up the sun with Los Bros. Hernandez’s epic comic book series “Love and Rockets.” The comics follow a group of knockabout, hard-living characters from punk LA (Jaime Hernandez’s “Hoppers 13” stories) and a slightly surreal South American village (Gilbert Hernandez’s “Palomar”). These are genre-crossing tales of love, loss, slowly encroaching adulthood, and sci-fi adventure; there are ghosts and witches, betrayal and camaraderie, superheroes, and luchadoras. Jaime’s art becomes increasingly sharp-edged and gorgeous as the series progresses, while Gilbert’s blotchier, curvier art makes the boundary between the natural and supernatural worlds seem oozy and permeable. There’s noir (Wigwam Bam), political tragedy (Poison River), horror (Flies on the Ceiling), community portrait (Ghosts of Hoppers); there’s an atheist stigmatic, a prison colony, a teen space explorer, Frida Kahlo, and the Devil himself. Most people tell newcomers to start with the hulking new collections, Locas and Palomar, but I prefer the old-fashioned experience of starting at the beginning with 1985’s desultory Music for Mechanics.
William Anthony Hay
The Waterloo bicentenary this year provides a bumper crop of books cover the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Brendan Simms The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Basic Books) stands high on my list, but Rory Muir’s Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814–1852 (Yale), the second volume of a two-part biography is my top pick. Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: World War I and the Road to Revolution (Viking) looks to a different anniversary while Michael Everett’s The Rise of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII (Yale) explores the real story behind Wolf Hall.
My summer reading list includes Rory Muir’s Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769–1814, the first of a two-volume biography of Britain’s celebrated military commander and statesman that details his baptism by fire in India and his brilliant campaign against France on the Iberian Peninsula. This volume ends with Napoleon’s abdication and banishment to Elba, from where he would escape, rally the French army, and face Wellington at Waterloo—undoubtedly where the anxiously awaited second volume will begin.
Steven Hayward’s second volume of The Age of Reagan does for Reagan what Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. did for Andrew Jackson and FDR,minus the hagiography. This volume covers the years of Reagan’s presidency, recounting the great accomplishments as well as the failures.
Patrick Buchanan’s latest book, The Greatest Comeback, is an insider’s account of Richard Nixon’s political resurrection after successive election losses in 1960 (for President) and 1962 (for Governor of California), culminating in his successful presidential election campaign of 1968.
The final book on my list is Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff, which focuses on President Eisenhower’s use of nuclear diplomacy to contain the Sino-Soviet bloc without breaking the budget. With the recent revelation that China is MIRVing their ICBMs, U.S. statesmen and strategists may once again be forced to compete in a nuclear arms race, formulate nuclear strategy, and engage in nuclear diplomacy.
This summer I plan to read R. H. Helmholz’s Natural Law in Court (Harvard), which shows how lawyers in America, England, and on the European continent have used natural law arguments in arguing different sides of cases involving, not just constitutional rights, but property law, wills and estates, contract law, and criminal law, since the early modern era.
I also will be reading Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context (Yale), which provides documentary evidence of the nature and limits of the Declaration’s connections with natural law theory, colonial history, and the American founding—a necessary antidote to ideological misreadings of our political origins.
I also will be joining my kids in reading anything I can lay my hands on by Brandon Mull, whose Fablehaven series is among the best series for young readers I have come across, and whose Five Kingdoms books, while aimed at a bit younger audience, also provide some of the best reading available.
I’m looking forward to reading Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Four Battles by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell wrote the series of Napoleonic war adventures featuring Richard Sharpe, who makes his way up the ranks in Wellington’s army. The BBC made it into an excellent Masterpiece series, starring Sean Bean. Cornwell knows this territory and his prose has a lot of forward motion.
Jonathan Galassi’s new novel, Muse, is first on my list since I want to see how he deals with his years at Farrar, Straus & Girouxand the publishing world. Next up is Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Ted Hughes.
David G. Bonagura, Jr.
With religious freedom under siege and an increasing number of Americans claiming no particular religious affiliation, I will be turning to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in order to gain deeper insight and broader perspective into contemporary religious America.
It seemed like a good summer for getting the historical Big Picture, so I’m reading The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, by Marshall Hodgson. It’s a three-volume history of Islamic civilization based on original sources and his own theories, larded with historiographical discussion explaining what he’s doing and why. I’m also continuing with Mommsen’s History of Rome, or rather Römische Geschichte, another three-volume work, which won the author the Nobel Prize in literature.
I hope to begin James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series—starting with Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation—which seems like a foundational text for rethinking current cultural pressures. I’ll definitely make time this summer finally to finish Fierce Convictions, Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of the reformer Hannah More, who was effective in standing against the pressures of her own time.
My wife has just read and recommended the Susan Cooper fantasy series that begins (arguably) with The Dark Is Rising. And as I was just fortunate enough after years of searching to find a good used hardback edition of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, I am taking the opportunity for a re-read; among other themes, his takedown of the power games and pretensions of academia is even more needed after fifteen years of their metastasis into the wider culture.
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Last year I set myself the task of filling out my knowledge of the Icelandic saga-literature. My summer reading for 2015 maintains contact with Scandinavian writers. Martin A. Hansen (1909–1955) is known hardly at all by English speakers, but he was arguably the most significant Danish writer of the mid-twentieth century, sharing certain themes with the better-known Karen Blixen (who wrote with as much facility in English as in Danish) and being, like Blixen, a staunch critic of modernity. For summer 2015 I have set myself to read Hansen’s two masterworks, one of fiction and the other of non-fiction.
Hansen wrote Lykkelige Kristoffer (Lucky Kristoffer, 1945) during the German occupation of his country. Hansen sets his story in Denmark and Southern Swedenduring the Thirty Years War. Hansen’s protagonist, an impoverished young aristocrat, takes on the impossible—to be a Christian knight on the Catholic side of the conflict. The chapters that I have read so far reveal Hansen’s judgment that the religious wars of the early seventeenth century forecast the ideological wars of the twentieth century. Hansen wrote Orm og Tyr (Dragon and Ox, 1952) in a period overlapping his authorship of Lykkelige Kristoffer, issuing portions of it in article form before consummating the whole as a lavishly produced book in two volumes. Dragon and Ox is a study of Danish culture from the prehistoric Iron Age, in whose archeology Hansen was versed at first-hand, to the medieval period when Danish-Catholic society built the hundreds of Romanesque churches that dot the Danish countryside and fill up Denmark’s towns. There is piquancy for me in Dragon and Ox. Hansen’s study was a major influence on the American-born but Danish-educated science fiction writer Poul Anderson. This influence shows up in Anderson’s pulp-oriented stories of the early 1950s and dramatically in his Corridors of Time (1965), which I plan to re-read.
Another twentieth-century Scandinavian writer who deeply interests me is the Swede Harry Martinson (1904–1978), known even in the English-speaking world for his epic poem Aniara (1958), for which he earned a Nobel Prize in Literature. Martinson, a novelist and memoirist as well as one of Sweden’s foremost poets, began as a man of the Left. Partly on the egging of his politically committed wife Moa Martinson, he traveled to Moscow to attend the infamous Writers’ Conference of 1934, at which Maxim Gorky and others articulated the dogma of Socialist Realism. Martinson found the spectacle of artistic conscience submitting gleefully to ideological control so revolting that he fled the conference, divorced his wife, who could not see what he so clearly saw, and, when the opportunity afforded itself, went to fight with the Finns against the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939-40.
Verklighet till döds (Reality unto Death, 1940) is Martinson’s account of these events. The book presents many striking parallels with other, more or less “lost” books of the mid-century that depart from political conformism to condemn the monstrosities of Marxism and its actual manifestation in the Soviet polity. Reality unto Death impresses me so greatly that I have decided to translate it as I read—which makes, of course, for slow reading.
Otherwise I am preparing for the fall semester when I will teach my department’s modern drama course. I have shaped the syllabus around three inaugurators of a truly modern drama: Richard Wagner, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. I am re-reading Wagner’s libretti for The Ring of the Nibelung in Andrew Porter’s eloquent translation, Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean, and Shaw’s Man and Superman. In addition I plan to read Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite and Quintessence of Ibsenism. And then as always there is a shelf of entertainment reading, mostly science fiction. An Oregon-based enterprise, Armchair Fiction, is republishing choice morsels from the age of the pulp-magazines. I look forward to devouring The Captive of the Centaurianess, You Can’t Escape from Mars, and I Remember Lemuria.
I’m starting the summer by reading or re-reading two novels that have produced justly celebrated television adaptations: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Brideshead is not my favorite Waugh—that would be the Sword of Honor books—but even when he goes to excess Waugh’s prose is never less than sterling. The ITV adaptation wisely sticks to Waugh’s own words; credited screenwriter John Mortimer’s script was in fact dumped by the directors in favor of relying on the text of the book itself. With Wolf Hall, by contrast, I enjoyed the BBC’s masterful reworking for the small screen (which isn’t so much smaller than cinema screens these days) more than I’ve so far enjoyed the book itself. Both versions are, of course, historical fiction: the Thomas Cromwell who is the protagonist here and the Thomas More who is among the supposed villains of Wolf Hall are characters in a drama, and a very good one at that.
In the vein of historical non-fiction, first on my list is Ian Morris’s War! What Is It Good For?, in which the Stanford classicist sets out to show how war made the modern state and the modern state made peace and prosperity. Morris, always a lucid writer, marshals evidence from across centuries and several fields of scholarship, including archeology and anthropology. I’m moderating a debate between Morris and Antiwar.com‘s Angela Keaton at July’s FreedomFest gathering in Las Vegas, but the book would be on my must-read list even without that spur. Morris’s thesis may seem sensationalistic, but in effect he wants to demonstrate how past wars might make future wars less likely, although this is a point about which one has reason to be skeptical.
Also in my summer-reading pile are two works of American intellectual history. Kevin Gutzman, biographer of James Madison and author of an important work on Virginia’s revolutionary generation (Virginia’s American Revolution), recently called the Peter Onuf-edited book Jeffersonian Legacies “the best introduction to all things Jeffersonian,” and seeing the volume on the shelves of my local bookstore, I thought I’d pick it up and put Professor Gutzman’s assessment to the test. Featuring essays by Gordon Wood, Jack P. Green, and (on Jefferson’s foreign policy) Walter LaFeber, among others, I think it will live up to its billing. The other work of U.S. history I’m tackling is the late Michael O’Brien’s Intellectual Life and the American South, an abridgment of his Bancroft Prize-winning two-volume Conjectures of Order, on the region’s antebellum intellectual milieu. I’ve skipped ahead to O’Brien’s chapter on political theory, which features figures such as John Taylor of Caroline who will be familiar to people who know there was such a thing as Southern intellectual history—a small enough population, as it happens, that O’Brien’s account was received even by many scholars as a startling revelation. One thing I wish O’Brien had written more about—and perhaps he does in the unabridged version—are the distinctions between the South’s own regions. He draws attention to the differences between South Carolina’s political thought and that of Virginia, as well as the feeling of some Virginians that New York provided as much political guidance as states further south, but clearly more remains to be said.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the latest book by my American Conservative colleague Rod Dreher. How Dante Can Save Your Life is Rod’s tale of his own journey through the dark wood of midlife and the ways in which Dante’s masterpiece led him beyond an inferno of disappointment and frustration to the challenges and spiritual rebirth of the purgatorio and paradiso. He proposes that the Divine Comedy may do for you, too, what it has done for him, as for so many others.