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Month: July 2015

Book Review: Defying Hitler: A Memoir (Sebastian Haffner)

“Defying Hitler” is one of those relatively few books (available widely in English at least) that are contemporaneous memoirs of events relating to the Third Reich. Any book, memoir or not, written after the war necessarily suffers from hindsight perception, so contemporaneous material is particularly interesting. (The classic modern example is Victor Klemperer’s diaries, which cover the war and pre-war period.) “Defying Hitler” was written in 1939, covering events in 1933, and was only published after the author’s death in 1999. The title of the book is a misnomer, because Haffner didn’t defy Hitler at all (which is his point).

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Book Review: This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
(Reinhart & Rogoff)

Unfortunately, this book is nearly unreadable. Oh, I’m sure it’s readable if you’re a professional or academic economist. But for the casual reader, even one with a pretty good background knowledge of economics, it’s mostly an endless series of highly technical, loosely related charts, graphs and conclusions. All this to agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes, 2500 years ago, that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

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Book Review: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (William Easterly)

William Easterly is a leading critic of traditional approaches to development—that is, of traditional approaches to bridging the Great Divergence. He, and everyone else studying development, want to know why and how the West and a few Western-influenced countries have become wealthy, and everyone else in the world has stayed poor, despite trillions of dollars spent fruitlessly over seven decades by the West to bring the poor out of poverty.

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Book Review: Coolidge (Amity Shlaes)

My conclusion, after reading this book, is that Calvin Coolidge is grossly under-rated. Actually, that’s not quite right, because to be under-rated, you first have to be known. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in America today knows much if anything about Coolidge. I certainly didn’t before reading this book. Yet not only is Coolidge a fascinating character study, his political life and his Presidency hold important lessons for today.

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Book Review: Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Christopher Hitchens)

Typical incisive Hitchens, but marred by his anti-religious obsessions and biases, along with some strange lapses (mis-defining “entail”; mis-using “usufruct”; and others). Also way too much focus on slavery for a book less than 200 pages–it could better have been subtitled not “Author Of America” but “His Views And Actions On Slavery; And Some Other Matters.

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Book Review: Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero (Michael Korda)

This is a slight book, but it does not claim to be more. As a basic introduction to the life of Ulysses Grant, once the most famous person in the world and now essentially forgotten, it is very good. I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the details, of which some other reviewers have complained. But it provides a clear and compelling outline of the man, in his roles as general, President and husband, and serves the important purpose of re-introducing him to modern Americans.

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Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker)

This is a sprawling mess of a book. Flashes of arguably brilliant insight alternate with meandering musings. Fascinating narrow conclusions are drawn from carefully parsed evidence—and then sweeping conclusions are drawn from highly dubious evidence. Historical insights are used incisively in an argument—then the next argument is undermined by total historical illiteracy. At the end, the reader is left uncertain whether he has read 800 pages of genius, 800 pages of authoritative-sounding-but-meaningless fluff, or something in between. But I’ll go with the last one.

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