Book Review Catch-Up

It’s been a while since I posted a book review on the site. That’s not because I haven’t been reading, but because I’ve just been lazy about posting the reviews. So, here’s one post to catch up on the outstanding reviews. For those who are interested in these reviews, sorry for the delay. For those who aren’t: too bad, it’s my blog. No one’s forcing you to read them.

So, starting from last read to most recent:

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam wrote this book to try to build an agenda that the Republican Party could get behind that would repair the damage done by the Bush administration and build a stronger America. Like any decent conservative book, it covers a lot of history showing the development of how the country reached where it is today. If there’s one thing conservatives should agree on it’s that we can’t figure out to get to where we want to be in the future until we figure out how we got to where we are now. Only by understanding the often unspoken assumptions of or political environment can we best address how to shift the environment in our favor.

And personally, I found this the best part of the book. They undercut some of the conservative assumptions about how we got here, and in ways that aren’t necessarily favorable to the conservative worldview. It’s always good to reassess your beliefs about the present and the past and they give ample evidence of the need to do so. They start with consensus America reached following the Great Depression and World War II and how that started to fray in the 1960s with the Great Society and the cultural issues going on at the time as those on the right and left who weren’t comfortable with that consensus chafed under it and broke free. The Age of Reagan brought a new political alignment and a new consensus that ushered what they refer to as the “conservative 90s.” I’ve said before, although I can’t seem to find where right now, that Clinton was the most conservative president we’ve had since Reagan. Think about the chief accomplishments of the Clinton era: welfare reform, free trade agreements, a balanced budget. Other initiatives included uniforms in public schools. After being rebuked for the rampant liberalism of his first two ears, Clinton (other than his unyielding support for abortion on demand with no exceptions) would have fit well in the mainstream of the GOP and was certainly to the right of at least a few Republican senators.

They argue this consensus is breaking down now in the 90s, but I’m not so sure that it is. What’s Bush being punished for? If I had to pick three items, I’d go with: Foreign military adventurism, incompetence and budget-busting spending levels. None of those are from the conservative playbook.

The second part of the book deals with the proposed policies that the GOP should get behind. Arguing that the GOP should think of itself as “The Party of Sam’s Club,” they focus their suggested agenda on the working class and how to deal with the issues they face in their daily lives. It has been a while since I read this book, so I can’t comment a lot on the details, but I didn’t particularly enjoy this part of the book. Part of it is my lack of policy wonkishness; another part is my general opposition to using the tax code to guide people’s behavior. Although, I am a huge fan of increasing the child deduction; it’s a trope, but it’s true: children are the future, and we should reduce the burdens that people face in having them. We don’t want to go the way of Europe and fail to replace ourselves. It’s a good read and has gotten great reviews from people whom I respect. (And Andrew Sullivan, too.)

The next book to be reviewed is Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. In this book, writer Rob Neyer examines a number of stories that people in baseball tell about the past and see how true they are. Some pass muster; most do not, many failing to even come close to the truth. He does this by comparing newspaper articles and other sources contemporary to the alleged event to see if they record the details of the story the same way.

It’s kind of depressing to see how wrong some people are about events they claim to have been involved in. Likely, many of these stories grew with each retelling. With the current movement to capture WWII veterans stories before they all pass away, it really makes you wonder how true those stories are going to be, so far removed from the actual event.

I’m reminded of a story I was told soon after my campaign’s loss to the incumbent Mayor in 1996. The candidate and his wife went out for a walk the next morning and one of their neighbors offered his condolences. Zuber responded, “Well, thirty and a half percent of the vote against an incumbent mayor in the City of Wilmington isn’t all that bad a total.” (That’s the correct percentage. It was actually a few hundredths of a percentage point higher, so it was actually the slightest bit of an understatement.) They kept walking and bumped into another neighbor who similarly offered condolences. Zuber responded the same way only this time changing the percentage of the vote to forty. His wife, an accountant, looked at him and said, “Forty? If we bump into a few people, you’re going to win this thing!” I imagine that’s how a lot of these stories end up: they start with a nugget of truth but over time, details get exaggerated or altered for dramatic effect until they bear almost no relation to what originally happened.

Despite the sadness of finding out stories I’d enjoyed since my childhood are largely untrue, Neyer makes this an interesting read. With the typical essay in it being 3-4 pages, it’s a perfect bathroom book. I definitely recommend it.

One of the nice things about having grandparents who loved to read and being one of their few grandchild who share that hobby is that you get first dibs on their books. Earlier this year, I came into possession of a great number of books, many of which I’ve wanted to read for a long time. One of those was G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, sometimes called the greatest Christian since Christ. As a book, it really struck me more as a work of cultural criticism than a straightforward biography. It used instances from Saint Francis’ life to illustrate areas where modern society falls short or has failings.

He shows that the questioning of Saint Francis’ miracles reflects more a refusal to believe even more present in today’s society than when he wrote it back in the 1920s. He shows that no one really came closer to the ideal of Christ than Saint Francis in his total self-abnegation and devotion to the Lord. For example, his original intentions were to make his religious order so strict about mortifications and sacrifice that the Pope stepped in to lessen them as most people, even those who would choose such a life, couldn’t handle them. It’s evidence of Francis’ holiness that he could, but the rest of us can’t.

In fact, so severe were his penances, that many assumed him to be insane, and even with the benefit of hindsight, it can be hard to avoid that conclusion. If he was insane, at least the insanity was properly directed. This is a man who gave up everything and still made a great difference in the world of his time, and through his example and intercession continues to do so today.

It’s a nice book to learn not just about Saint Francis, but about ourselves. One word of caution: if you’re looking to learn a good bit about the great saint’s life, this is not the book for you. Many details are left out in favor of analyzing a few events and discussing their relation to modern society.

Two Sundays ago, I was meeting some friends to see The Dark Knight, and stopped into the Subway on Concord Pike for dinner. I took a book to read while eating. (I hate wasting time that could be devoted to reading.) While I was reading, the guy sweeping the floor asked me if I was reading the Bible. I said, “No, this is George Will,” but my first instinct was to reply, “No, but close.”

Yesterday, I was hanging out with a buddy of mine and mentioned I had just read it and he (a moderate conservative who not all that into politics) said, “You know, I don’t agree with him all the time, but I always get a lot out of reading him.” Which is also my assessment. He’s one of the few “must-read” columnists out there in my mind. Even when he’s wrong (like on Terry Schiavo), he’s articulate (or is that racist?), intelligent and always make interesting points. His vocabulary and logic are such that it makes you smarter just to read him, even if you don’t end up agreeing with him

It’s a collection of the columns he’s written for Newsweek and the Washington Post over the last few years, with a few from other sources thrown in. Many of these columns are so good, I can remember having read them years after the fact and enjoyed them again. Naturally, my favorite part of the book was the section titled simply, “The Game.” Just as there is only one “The Church,” there is only one “The Game”: baseball, which Will has an appropriate love for.

I didn’t use it for such, but with all the essays being just over two pages this is another perfect bathroom book. But it’s worth reading anywhere. Will’s likely the finest political writer out there, so get this and read it. Even if he doesn’t change, he’ll make you smarter.