■ Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade: Sure, his weekly column and books on civilization’s impending doom are must-reads. But long before he was charting mankind’s demise as a whole, Mark Steyn was, for years, the obituarist at The Atlantic, before that magazine decided to trade him for Andrew Sullivan and draft picks back in 2007. Following Sullivan morphing the following year into the world’s foremost uterus detective, and in recent weeks with the Atlantic’s disastrous Scientology infomercial, that formerly august institution is now suffering the same fate as the Boston Red Sox in the years after they traded away Babe Ruth.
Over the last 20 years, the left has reduced the word “diversity” down to a meaningless catchphrase. But if you’d like to get a real sense of the diversity of life and opinion of those who were in power, whether in politics, business, or show-biz at the turn of the new millennium, then Steyn’s Passing Parade, a compilation of some of his best obits, is tremendous fun. It deserves a new life (so to speak) in the Kindle format. (For my interviews with Steyn, click here and here.)
■ Architects of Fortune: Mies Van Der Rohe and the Third Reich, by Elaine S. Hochman: In 1989, long before Jonah Goldberg explored the relationship between socialism and National Socialism, Hochman wrote an intriguing look at Germany’s Weimar era of the 1920s, and the horrors that followed. Hochman charts the rise of Mies van der Rohe, who began the 1920s virtually unknown, before emerging at the start of the following decade as Germany’s best-known modern architect and the headmaster of the Bauhaus, Germany’s pioneering school for modern design. He achieved his fame through a combination of sheer artistic talent and the will of a powerful personality.
Hochman compares Mies’s career in the 1920s through the mid-1930s with a wannabe-architect who began the period as even more of an unknown, but through the strength of his own will, took over the entire nation. Hitler of course hated the aesthetics of modernism, whether in art or architecture. Part of this was populism and not wanting to get too far ahead of the aesthetics of the nation’s citizens, another part was due to Hitler’s own failed artistic endeavors. But the impulse to hit the CLT-ALT-DLT buttons on Berlin’s buildings was never far from his mind, even as he was doing the same to the rest of the nation’s culture. “If I continually put architectural problems into the foreground,” Hochman quotes Hitler saying in 1935, “that is because they lie nearest my heart.” (And there they’d remain even as the end was nigh; recall the scene early in Downfall where Hitler obsesses over giant architectural models of his fantasy Berlin.)
Given that Architects of Fortune was written in the late 1980s, there are plenty of quotes from former Miesian acolyte Philip Johnson, still very much alive at the time, and with his own duality on the subject of loving socialist-inspired architecture, and socialist-themed totalitarianism looming uncomfortably in the background. (A review of Hochman’s book by fellow PJM columnist Roger Kimball is online at the New Criterion.)
■ The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, by Terry Teachout. Neither Pops, Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, nor his earlier look at Mencken are available on the Kindle, curious oversights given Teachout’s vantage point as the Wall Street Journal’s longtime drama critic. To understand the misanthropy, nihilism, and sheer “oikophobia” that drive so many journalists in the 21st century, it’s necessary to discover its root cause, and all roadmaps point back to H.L. Mencken. Teachout’s 2003 book is an excellent introduction to Mencken’s career, and his worldview.
■ The Predators’ Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders, by Connie Bruck: By the early 1990s, Mike Milken had become a household name, one that was synonymous with greed, insider trading, and all that was wrong with Wall Street. It didn’t help that the economy slipped into recession right around the time the MSM was pillorying Milken and Drexel. Prior to becoming mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani used this period to make his bones as Manhattan’s district attorney, by having stockbrokers at Drexel photographed in handcuffs as they were escorted for questioning. But few know of Milken’s rise to power at Drexel Burnham Lambert, or how he transformed a heretofore little-known financial asset, the low-rated high-yield bond — the so-called “junk” bond — into one of the hottest financial markets of the 1980s. (And high yield bonds, and mutual funds that contain junk bonds, are very much still around to this day, of course.)
Michael Lewis’s similarly themed book, Liar’s Poker, is available on Kindle, and charts how Salomon Brothers, a direct competitor with Drexel Burnham, invented the mortgage-backed security, which led eventually to the far worse financial crisis of 2008. The Predator’s Ball is Liar’s Poker played straight, without the humorous prose that makes Lewis’s book so much fun to read, but if anything, Bruck’s book is much more thoroughly researched, and equally worthy of being archived in ebook format as a financial history of the 1980s.
■ God’s Coach: The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry’s Cowboys, by Skip Bayless: In the last 15 years, sportswriter Skip Bayless tarnished his reputation by making an unsubstantiated claim that 90s-era Cowboy QB Troy Aikman was playing for the other team (IYKWIMAITYD) only to reemerge after years in the journalistic wilderness as a talking head on ESPN. But at the start of the 1990s, he wrote a pretty decent summation of the first three decades of the team that helped transform the NFL into America’s most popular professional sport. Bayless, then a Cowboys beat writer, wrote his first book in the immediate aftermath of new owner Jerry Jones acquiring the Cowboys and unceremoniously showing Landry, the Cowboys’ legendary founding coach, the door. God’s Coach ends up actually casting most of the blame for the Cowboys’ woes in the 1980s with the eroding skills of draftmaster Gil Brandt, but the revered Landry shouldn’t emerge unscathed for looking the other way while so much corruption tore his team apart. And Bayless’s prose makes this book an endlessly enjoyable guilty pleasure for NFL fans. I suspect it would get plenty of rereads if it ever appears in Kindle format.