As the Gregorian year comes to a close, many people are putting forth their favorite reads of the year. I actually track my reading by the Jewish calendar, and list what I am reading from September to September (or Tishrei to Tishrei, if you want to be precise about it). So for this overview, I will discuss some of the 2013 books I have read thus far in the year 5774. I read lots of old books, too, but this will include only some of my recent favorites.
For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I do like to torture myself with inside looks at recent presidential campaigns. I have been hooked on this genre ever since I read Teddy White's The Making of the President series, which started with his fly-on-the-wall look at the 1960 campaign. (Imagine that, the Game Change guys did not invent this concept.) Some of my recent reads in this area include John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Double Down, of course, but also Collision 2012, by Dan Balz, and The Center Holds, by Jonathan Alter. Double Down is the most exciting and has the best inside dope, but Balz's effort is more sober and is the one I would rather use when citing material. For example, on page 56, Halperin and Heilemann write: "We all know that Bibi Netanyahu is a pain in the ass, Obama said." I can believe that Obama thinks that, and possibly even that he said it, but Halperin and Heilemann do not place the sentence in quotation marks. Does that mean Obama said it? Thought it? That others in the room felt that he thought it? As a historian, can I quote it as words the president said? As for Alter, he is too biased for my taste, but he does have some good tidbits, such as Obama passing up Patty Stonesifer, Walter Isaacson, and Cass Sunstein for domestic-policy adviser in favor of Cecilia Muñoz. And there was also Obama's reaction to a possible sleeper terrorist cell in the U.S.: "Sounds like Homeland."
Speaking of reliving things, I also read Peter Baker's Days of Fire, his thorough history of the Bush administration. Even though I served eight years in that administration, I still picked up lots of new material, including the fact that Pete Wehner became physically ill over the state of the Iraq War, and that Richard Armitage was asked about replacing Tom Ridge at Homeland Security but said no. Good thing, that. Baker also has a host of material on Bush's prodigious reading, including the great story that Bush, having heard that Karl Rove made a New Year's resolution to read a book a week in 2006, told Rove three days into January, "I'm on my second."
One book that I picked up because of NR was Jeff Guinn's Manson. Florence King began her NR review of the book with the words "Sometimes a book is so good that the reviewer does not know where to begin." As King is not prone to hyperbolic flattery, I was hooked then and there, but King added that it was "not only the best biography of Charles Manson, but the best study of American true crime since Victoria Lincoln's A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight." I haven't read A Private Disgrace (2014, here I come), but King was right about the Manson book. I knew the bare basics of the Manson story, but there is so much more to tell, and Guinn does a great job of it.
The Manson book will depress and frighten you, so you should turn to Ruth Wisse's No Joke to lift your spirits. It has many great jokes in it — some of which I had not even heard – and it also explains the why of Jewish humor. Another book that peeks into the Jewish soul, but in a less humorous vein, is Yossi Klein Halevi's fascinating Like Dreamers. In the book, he aims to tell "the story, through the lives of 7 paratroopers, of Israel's competing utopian dreams." He succeeds brilliantly.
I also have a soft spot for books about the entertainment industry and really enjoyed Brett Martin's Difficult Men. The title refers not only to the morally ambiguous heroes of TV's new golden age — think Tony Soprano or Walter White – but also how the shows' creators had to be obstinate to get their nontraditional stories on the air. (Which reminds me: My favorite magazine piece of the year was Jonah's NR cover story on Breaking Bad. David Brooks should give him a Sidney.) Going back to an earlier era, Henry Bushkin's Johnny Carson details the many, many shenanigans of the prickly and insecure longtime host of The Tonight Show.
Other books that I have read and enjoyed recently, but don't have room to elaborate on in this space, include Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife, Jeffrey Frank's Ike and Dick, Rich Lowry's Lincoln Unbound, Ira Stoll's JFK, Conservative, Dick Cheney and Jonathan Reiner's Heart, Donald Critchlow's When Hollywood Was Right, and Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman's Enemies Within.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude in this holiday season to NR for its support of my book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Kathryn Lopez encouraged me to write it and interviewed me about it, and Jonah Goldberg, Yuval Levin – whose The Great Debate I plan to read in 2014 — Stanley Kurtz, John Miller, Jack Fowler, Jim Geraghty, Mona Charen, and Betsy Woodruff all said positive things about it. Thanks to all of you, and have a great 2014. Happy reading.