All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Graham Allison)

For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens (David Stuttard)

We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?

Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World 1194-1250 (Ernst Kantorowicz)

This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.

Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death (Anthony Everitt)

Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.

The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order (David Levering Lewis)

If the word hagiography had not already been coined, it would need to be invented for this book. To David Levering Lewis, Wendell Willkie was a combination of Saint Michael and Saint Francis. He was a world-bestriding colossus, a credit to his country, and a wonderful exemplar of what a Republican can and should be. After reading this book, though, I pick a different progenitor: Judas Iscariot. Willkie was a pocket Judas, true, having more gross vices and less cold malice than the original, but a Judas nonetheless. For Willkie betrayed his wife, his party, and his country. And, like Judas, he accomplished nothing but the designs of his enemies, and left behind only his corpse.

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Robert Irwin)

I generally liked this book, by the erudite Orientalist Robert Irwin, but I am not sure why it exists. It is too academic to be popular, and too popular to be academic. I learned something about the famous medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, but I would have been lost if I did not already know much about Ibn Khaldun and medieval Islam generally. So this is not a reference work, or even a normal biography. Really, it’s a seminar in print, discussing a grab-bag of topics about Ibn Khaldun, valuable mostly as an add-on if you are particularly interested in medieval Islam or the history of North Africa.

Escaping the Russian Bear: An Estonian Girl’s Memoir of Loss and Survival During World War II (Kristina von Rosenvinge)

I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.

Richard Nixon: The Life (John Farrell)

Richard Nixon’s name is often invoked, but what we hear, for the most part, is not history. Rather it is incantation, much like watching a medieval morality play, where every character has his place, and Nixon’s is Evil. Given this, John Farrell’s 2017 biography performs two services. The first is to go behind the stage and show Nixon in all his lost complexity. The second is to show how the destruction of Nixon has been used as the template in attempts to similarly destroy Donald Trump. For people like me, who did not live through the Nixon years and only know of him through the malevolent mumblings of senile Baby Boomers, lost in their delicious opium dreams of youth and JFK, this book is therefore most enlightening, both of the past and the present.

On Francisco Franco

Few Americans know much about Francisco Franco, leader of the winning side in the Spanish Civil War and subsequently dictator of Spain. Yet from 1936 until 1975, he was a famous world figure. Now he is forgotten—but not by all. Franco is, and has been for decades, a cause célèbre among the global Left, seen as the devil incarnate for his successful war against Communist domination of Spain. To successfully delay, or worse, block, any Left attempt to establish their permanent rule, thereby revealing that history lacks a progressive direction, is the unforgivable sin. Naturally, therefore, my own impression of Franco was generally favorable. But after reading up on him, my impression of him has changed. Now it is positively glowing.

From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Sohrab Ahmari)

This is not a Muslim conversion memoir. Yes, Islam shows up quite a bit in the discussion, as it must in any book that discusses cultures in the Middle East. But Sohrab Ahmari’s conversion was from atheist materialism, the religion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, to Christianity. True, he had converted to that new religion as a teenager, earlier abandoning formal observance of an inculcated Shiite Islam. So Islam, the politics of Islam, and politics in general do show up here. Mostly, though, this book is simply a well-written and compelling personal narrative of the author’s search for, and finding of, the triune God, and adopting His worship in the form embodied in the Roman Catholic Church.