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Category: The Orient

Book Review: Curzon: Imperial Statesman (David Gilmour)

“Curzon” is one of those typically British biographies of dead political figures. Such biographies tend to go into great detail not just about the protagonist, but about long-forgotten political issues fought among long-forgotten men. If you are interested in the protagonist, or the period, this can be excellent, as long as the writing is good, and Gilmour’s is good. But if you’re looking for an objectively thrilling read, you should stay away.

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Book Review: 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.

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Book Review: 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.

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Book Review: 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.”

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Book Review: Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Sven Beckert)

“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads.

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Book Review: The Arab Mind
(Raphael Patai)

Looking at other reviews of “The Arab Mind,” it appears readers divide into two camps. The first group, for whom ideology matters more than reality, hate this book. The second group, largely military, for whom their lives depend on an accurate perception of reality, love this book. This divergence alone suggests the book is worth reading.

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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: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (James Romm)

Who knew how exciting the events of the fourth century BC could be? Most of us have a dim idea of Alexander the Great—conqueror of Greece and points East, all the way to India. But it’s a pretty dim idea. And most of us have very little idea of what happened in the classical world after Alexander and before Julius Caesar. Perhaps we’re vaguely aware that the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty was started by one of Alexander’s lieutenants, who took that part of Alexander’s empire, and that the famous Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian in the least. But mostly our awareness is a blank page. This book fills in a small part of that page.

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Book Review: Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society (Margaret Nydell)

This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of the book, you should run away as fast as you can.

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Book Review: The Road To Mecca (Muhammad Asad)

This is a fascinating book—half travelogue and half conversion memoir.  Muhammad Asad was born a Jew, Leopold Weiss, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (in what is now Ukraine, the city of Lvov). He was prominent both in interactions with the West in the 20th Century, for example as Pakistani ambassador to the UN, and in theological work, including translation and exegesis of the Q’uran. Asad is regarded, and should be even more regarded in these days of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as a voice for a revitalized, mainstream (he would accurately reject the term “moderate”) Islam. But long before that, he was just a Westerner adrift and looking for spiritual answers.

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