Twelve Months of Reading

Wall Street Journal

December 17, 2011

We asked 50 of our friends to tell us what they enjoyed reading in 2011—from Mike Allen’s taste for Tebow-ing to Adam Zagajewski’s love of Scottish poetry.

Max Boot

To research a history of guerrilla warfare, I read a lot of memoirs. Two of the best were by Brits who served in wartime Yugoslavia.

In “Eastern Approaches” (1949), Fitzroy Maclean tells the story of his extraordinary journey from serving as a British diplomat in Moscow (1937-39) to joining the fledgling SAS to fight Rommel in the North African desert, before parachuting into Yugoslavia in 1943 as Winston Churchill’s personal representative to Tito. It tells you something of this Bertie Wooster-in-uniform that when the Foreign Office would not let him join the army, he found a way out by winning a seat in Parliament, which he held throughout his wartime adventures.

Just as enthralling, if less stylishly written, is “The Embattled Mountain” (1971). Its author is F.W.D. “Bill” Deakin, an Oxford don and former literary assistant to Churchill who parachuted into Yugoslavia ahead of Maclean, in the middle of a German offensive, to link up with Tito’s headquarters. The first part of the book gives the best account I have read of how harrowing partisan warfare could be. It is hard to imagine how Deakin managed to go back to the dull pace of academia after the war.

A more recent book I’ve been reading is Eliot A. Cohen’s “Conquered Into Liberty,” which tells the story of the battles fought from the late 1600s to the early 1800s in the upper Hudson Valley between Albany and Montreal. The Indians called this 200-mile area the “Great Warpath,” and it was a crucial battleground pitting American settlers against first the French and then the British in Canada. In this well-crafted narrative, Mr. Cohen argues that the “Great Warpath” did much to shape the American approach to warfare.

For a change of pace I read “John O’Hara’s Hollywood” (2006), a collection of short stories by this now all-but-forgotten mid-20th-century American novelist who is best known for “Appointment in Samarra” and “Butterfield 8.” Like many of his peers, from Raymond Chandler to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he also worked as a screenwriter—which gave him inside exposure to the movie industry. He loved Hollywood money but hated its mores. Out of these conflicting emotions came these entertaining stories with a kick, which were originally published between the 1930s and 1960s.