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Category: European History

Book Review: The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (Darío Fernández-Morera)

This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession.  True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement.  So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales.  But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.

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Book Review: The English and Their History (Robert Tombs)

This book is a massive history of the English, written by an English expert on France, Robert Tombs.  Somehow, against the odds, it manages to be sprightly, interesting, and, most of all, generally upbeat about the past, present, and future of England.  Tombs rejects the idea of “Whig history,” not because English progress does not exist, but because the past was rarely as bad as we often think, making any progress less dramatic than it may appear.  He offers rational, yet clear-eyed, hope for a bright future—one not destined to be good, but certainly with a better than even chance of being so.  Thus, this book is a counterweight to recent narratives of English decline (such as 1999’s The Abolition of Britain, by Peter Hitchens), and a book that all pessimists should read.

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Book Review: The Strange Death of Europe (Douglas Murray)

Mass immigration to Europe is one of those topics about which there is little mainstream discussion, both in the United States and even more so (paradoxically) in Europe.  What discussion does happen is purely facile, on the “pro” side, or often lacking nuance, on the “anti” side.  Douglas Murray’s book, The Strange Death of Europe, sets out to remedy both faults.  The book is good, if a bit meandering; it offers historical and political analysis, along with relevant philosophical thoughts.  The difficulty, though, as Murray hints himself, is that properly viewed, the topic does not rate an analysis so much as a dirge.  To the extent there is a problem, it has no real solution, and in any case the problem only exists as a second-order problem, made possible by the pre-existing exhaustion of Europe, most obvious in its childlessness.  If Europe was not exhausted, this book would not exist.  Nonetheless, by offering clarity of thought about how Europe got to its current position, The Strange Death of Europe performs a valuable service.

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Book Review: Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Tony Judt)

Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented.  Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005).  He is even-handed and insightful.  The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period.  Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C.  The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter.  On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book is worth reading today.

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Book Review: At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion (Jean-Vincent Blanchard)

Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion.  Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism.  At The Edge of the World:  The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.

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Book Review: How Civilizations Die (David Goldman)

I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times.  His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read.  But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author.  Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column.  The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such.  David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.

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Book Review: Agents of Empire
(Noel Malcolm)

When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists.  Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans.  If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi.  I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers.  This book, however, has changed my perspective.

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Book Review: Cake: A Slice of History (Alysa Levene)

I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history.  Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk.  So there is significant overlap between the two genres.  This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category.  It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!

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Book Review: The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization (Richard Baldwin)

This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space.  The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures.  In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before.  All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct.  But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop.  Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus:  a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.

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Book Review: The Life and Prayers of Saint Joan of Arc (Wyatt North)

This book is pure hagiography.  While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography.  But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.

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