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Those who enjoy hard-boiled detective fiction mourned the 2010 loss of Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser series and several others. What Raymond Chandler, who influenced Parker greatly (Parker even finished Chandler's last book) wrote in The Simple Art of Murder sums up Parker's protagonists well: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony....But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Parker's work is formulaic, but his formula is like that for KFC or Coke: It satisfies. So while Sixkill, a Spenser tale and the last book Parker completed before his death, is not his strongest, it's still a good yarn full of Parker trademarks: spare prose, dry laconic wit, boxing lessons, gunfights, undertones of allegory, and meditations on manhood. (Another Spenser novel, Painted Ladies, was published last year but came out in paperback in 2011. Check that one out, too—we won't tell.)
Bill Kauffman, author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire
The wisemen of of post-republic America—Wendell Berry, Gore Vidal, Edward Abbey, Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch; the list is long, which is one of many reasons hope abides—have understood that militarism subverts communities and destroys liberties. 'Twould be pretty to think that John and Yoko were right that war is over if we want it, but under the current dispensation war will never be over. Until, that is, we dismantle the goddamned anti-American Empire. Andrew Bacevich, a West Pointer out of the Midwest, a retired colonel, and now a professor at Boston University, is among today's wisemen, and in 2011 he came bearing the gift of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. Read it and weep for our lost republic. (Okay, I'm cheating; the paperback was issued this year, the hardcover the year before. But if Cher could turn back time, so can I.) I was also mightily impressed by Susan J. Matt's Homesickness: An American History, a keen, even heartwrenching account of the dislocations—often due to big-government policies—that have fed the cancer of American rootlessness.
Kurt Loder, author of The Good, The Bad, and the Godawful: 21st Century Movie Reviews
Great little movie: Like Crazy, a sweet-and-sour transatlantic romance that’s too smart to pass as a standard romcom. With Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, and breakthrough star Felicity Jones (already a winner at this year’s Gotham Awards). The picture’s still in theatres, or you could wait (but why?) for the DVD.
Best book: Late as usual, I discovered the great Oslo crime novels of Jo Nesbo this year. His complicated cop is Harry Hole (think Norwegian pronunciation); the plots are as lurid as necessary and totally engrossing. Martin Scorsese is onboard to turn last year’s The Snowman into a major motion picture, due out 2013.
Best club show: Thanks to Greg Gutfeld for dragging me off to Brooklyn to see Tobacco, the solo incarnation of the mysterious Thomas Fec, leader of the Pittsburgh mind-melt band Black Moth Super Rainbow. The swirling low-budget majesty of Fec’s sound is conjured up out of antique synths and effects gadgets. You might call it “neo-psychedelic,” except that he has actual tunes. Might also say it recalls the first two Pink Floyd albums—although not any Pink Floyd album that followed. Last year’s Maniac Meat is the one to have.
Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is an impressive feat: Reams of data, digested into a single (surprising) conclusion by Harvard neuroscientist and hair model Steven Pinker. Namely, violence has been on the decline for millennia, and the world is more peaceful today than it has ever been. Makes a great, if potentially incendiary gift for pessimistic and paranoid relatives and friends. But, as Pinker points out in a recent interview with Reason, “people cutting off each other’s noses, stabbing each other over the dinner table in response to an insult—there seems to be less now than there was then.” Huzzah and happy holidays!
George Orwell floats lightly over Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, a story set in 1984 about a world that is—and isn’t—our own. The title is a play on words: The Japanese word for the number nine is pronounced “kew.” Originally released in Japan in three volumes, 1Q84 features a deadly, sexy lady protagonist not unlike Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but with two marked advantages: 1) far, far better writing, and 2) an author who is not dead, and will (presumably) produce more of his beautiful, gripping books for future Festivus gift giving.
Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, author of It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong
I try to read two to three books a month, and in 2011 I got through about 25 books. The two most memorable were Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, by Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., and With Malice Aforethought: The Execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, by Theodore W. Grippo.
In Ten Universal Principles, Fr. Spitzer, who is a world-class philosopher and a former president of Gonzaga University, presents basic building blocks of thought with which few can disagree, and extrapolates them into a brilliant defense of the natural law and of human life at all its stages. If you are looking for a traditional Thomistic defense of human dignity and personal freedom, footnoted to classic and unassailable sources, this is it. Fr. Spitzer also offers the most powerful and rational defense I have seen for the proposition that life begins at conception; and you needn’t be Catholic to accept his arguments.
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