All posts filed under: Book Reviews

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Amity Shlaes)

“The Forgotten Man” is both history and warning. It’s a great social/political history of the Depression. Rather than a recitation of economic facts, it emphasizes the personalities of relevant leaders in many fields and views the Depression through their interactions, with particular focus on the inability of the government to actually fix the Depression, despite their best (and not-so-best) efforts. The “forgotten man” of the title, in its usual historical frame, refers to Franklin Roosevelt’s use of the term—the politically weak voters on whom Roosevelt focused to get their votes, and supposedly rescued from economic despair. Shlaes resurrects in parallel the original and alternate meaning, of the man who bears the costs of government schemes directed at others.

The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (Toby Huff)

This is a magisterial book, pulling together innumerable threads into a coherent, cohesive whole. It is actually a different book than I expected—it spends much more time on the sociology and philosophy of science, in the abstract and as tied to and generated by each society, and much less time on individual scientific inventions and advances. Those do appear, of course, but more by way of illustration than discussion. So if you’re looking for a catalog of inventions, you may be disappointed (though Huff apparently has a later book that is more that), but you’ll probably learn more with this book written the way it is.

Curry: A Global History (Colleen Taylor Sen)

This short book is an interesting read, even if it’s really just a summary of the different impacts of Indian cooking spices around the world. The story isn’t new, of course—it’s well known that the migration of Indians around the world has resulted in a wide range of hybrid cuisines, some with very little resemblance to actual Indian cuisine. But reading details, such as the huge popularity of something called “currywurst” in Germany, brings home the global impact of what are generically called curries.

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Robert Louis Wilken)

This book is not a polemic or a book of apologetics; it is instead an exposition of what early Church theologians thought about important topics in Christian belief, and how those thoughts evolved and grew. If you think all theology is merely empty wind or arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how early Christians developed their thought about the Trinity, or theological views on Christ being simultaneously fully human and fully divine, or how they viewed faith through the prism of reason, this is the book for you.

Jesus Land (Julia Scheeres)

I think I’m well-positioned to review this book, because I grew up with Julia and David Scheeres. More precisely, we all went to Lafayette Christian School through eighth grade. Both Julia and David were in my brother’s elementary school class, one year ahead of me. Jerome, her older adopted brother, was in the class two years ahead of me. Lafayette Christian figures heavily in the story, although the story itself takes place starting two years after graduation from that school.

The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea (Michael Pye)

“The Edge Of The World” is an ambitious book. Its subtitle is “A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe,” and its core thesis is that the cultural impact of the peoples bordering the North Sea has been ignored. I think that thesis is false—such cultural impact can be seen everywhere, from the current TV series “Vikings” to New York Times articles on rotting fish cuisine of the North Sea. And the book is more a series of cultural anecdotes grouped by topic than a fully-synthesized cultural history. So the book fails in its stated goal. But it succeeds in being very, very interesting.

Coming Apart (Charles Murray)

This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.

The Death of Caesar (Barry Strauss)

“The Death of Caesar” is Barry Strauss’s latest work on the politics and warfare of the Classical World. Strauss is perhaps today’s most prominent author writing histories of this type—highly readable, not too lengthy, cogent analyses that are designed for the general modern reader. Among other topics, Strauss has covered the Trojan War, Salamis, Spartacus, and now Caesar. This is actually the second book in which Strauss has focused on Caesar—“Masters Of Command” includes the life Caesar as one of its three foci, and “The Death of Caesar” focuses on, unsurprisingly, his death.

By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (Charles Murray)

I am a criminal. More precisely, I am the kind of criminal that Charles Murray likes. Now, as is well-known, everyone is a criminal nowadays, because of the enormous expansion of deliberately vague and open-ended criminal laws. The average American commits multiple federal felonies every day. But Charles Murray specifically wants every American to commit a precise type of relatively limited crime, and I realize with joy that I have been happy to oblige his request for several years.

The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (William Easterly)

“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”