A really good three-star book. Wickham knows the Brotherhood better than probably any other Western scholar, and she walks her readers through the arc...moreA really good three-star book. Wickham knows the Brotherhood better than probably any other Western scholar, and she walks her readers through the arc of the group's development with a professorial -- but not pedantic -- tone and flow. The book is a history of the Brotherhood laced with examinations of Wickham's research interests, particularly the mechanisms that lead to changes in Islamist groups' tactics, strategies, worldviews, and relationships with other political and social actors. Wickham strikes a balance between readable history and somewhat esoteric social science textbook well enough that readers solely interested in a fairly concise review of the Brotherhood's rise, as well as academics and university students seeking a researcher's insights into Islamist groups, should be equally satisfied.
Wickham had the misfortune of publishing her book on the eve of the July 2013 revolution that nearly obsoleted her work. Still though, her insights are sharp and prescient enough that the careful reader can identify the faultlines she points out that led to the violent upheaval that knocked the Brotherhood from power. My biggest qualm with the book is that, despite purporting to thoroughly cover the Brotherhood's history from foundation to the present day, Wickham inexplicably pays no heed to the group's members that left Egypt for exile during the Nasserist purges of the 1950s and 1960s. These exiles settled in, among other areas, the Gulf, where they arguably led the indoctrination of armies of extremists that are waging guerilla warfare across the Middle East today, including in Egypt. I was surprised that Wickham paid this legacy of the Brotherhood -- which had and continues to have such a large influence on Egypt and its neighbors -- such short shrift.(less)
I don't fully know what to make of American Nations. On one hand, it really was a joy to read. Every page was interesting and thought-provoking. On th...moreI don't fully know what to make of American Nations. On one hand, it really was a joy to read. Every page was interesting and thought-provoking. On the other hand, I can't escape the sensation that Woodard is vastly oversimplifying American history, shoving complex trends and events into his "nations" paradigm. Moreover, he talks about his 11 nations as if each nation is self-conscious and equally conscious of the others. This obviously isn't the case, except in the most extreme examples, such as perhaps the deep south. I guess to me it just seems like so many complex processes have affected the culture of the United States -- immigration, media, the movement of Americans within the U.S., religion, education -- that it seems improbable that it can all be explained under the rubric of 11 nations that have existed for hundreds of years.
All that said, American Nations still gets a solid three stars because Woodard presents a persuasive -- if heavily and obviously biased -- case to support his thesis. And, at the end of the day, it was a really fun read.(less)
Days of Fire is a winner. Baker doesn't waste our time with analysis -- it's not far enough from Bush's controversial presidency for readers to see cl...moreDays of Fire is a winner. Baker doesn't waste our time with analysis -- it's not far enough from Bush's controversial presidency for readers to see clearly anyhow. Instead, Baker mostly just catalogues the inner workings of a presidency fielding crisis after crisis. He mines memoirs, conducts interviews, reads the White House records. And it's strangely fascinating to get behind the scenes of what we all watched unfold through Bush's eight tumultuous years, strangely riveting to relive the tense months post-9/11, strangely gripping to watch the train coming off the tracks in slow motion in the lead up to the disasterous Iraq war.
But Baker gives us a bit more than just a run down of the day to day monotony among Bush's inner circle. We're also treated to a narrative of the fractous relationships of those surrounding the president, including the arc of his own fascinating association with Dick Cheney. Baker shows convincingly that Bush was indeed his own man -- the Decider -- rather than Cheney's puppet, and it's beyond interesting to watch Cheney deal with Bush's increasing self-confidence and willingness to part with Cheney's preferences on critical decisions. An excellent read. My highest recommendation for those interested in the histories of presidencies, war, or politics, as well as those that thrive on the details of the interactions among the powerful.(less)
A fascinating character portrait of T.E. Lawrence, the hero of the Arabian theater of WWI who, it turns out, was actually quite troubled as a human be...moreA fascinating character portrait of T.E. Lawrence, the hero of the Arabian theater of WWI who, it turns out, was actually quite troubled as a human being. Anderson's prose is sharp and often clever as he sketches the development of the characters he uses to weave his narrative of the war.
And therein lies the book's only real flaw. It is clearly a treatment of Lawrence, yet for flavor an to put human faces on other aspects of the war, Anderson half-heartedly follows a half dozen other minor characters, including German, American, and Jewish intelligence figures. These characters are treated in much less detail than Lawrence, for obvious reasons, but their inclusion therefore ends up feeling like more of a distraction to the real story than a contribution to the overall arc of the book. It was a good idea that didn't quite work, in my view.(less)
Kissinger's prose is exquisite. He turns a phrase effortlessly and deconstructs complex ideas into concise, digestible sentences seemingly devoid of a...moreKissinger's prose is exquisite. He turns a phrase effortlessly and deconstructs complex ideas into concise, digestible sentences seemingly devoid of anything unnecessary. Simply put, reading the English-language usage in "Diplomacy" was a joy.
On the other hand, although his prose was a joy to read, there sure was a lot of it. And although, sentence by sentence, each word seemed oh so carefully placed, page by page he seemed to say the exact same thing in a lot of different ways. I bet Kissinger could've excised 200-300 pages if he had made each of his point's only once.
Substantively, my biggest quibble with "Diplomacy" was that Kissinger failed to note the economic costs of the policies he described. It was particularly troubling that he cited postwar U.S. policy and activities without once noting the costs of these activities. He applauded the aggressiveness of the Reagan years, which he justifiably credits with pressuring the Soviet Union into collapse, but he failed to note that slashing taxes at home and jacking up defense spending to bring down the Soviets greatly expanded the debt and deficit that we're still dealing with today. To say the least, it's disturbing that one of our preeminent statesmen paid so little heed to the economic costs of the policies he undertook. I hope 21st century statesmen pay more attention to costs, but I kind of doubt they do.(less)
Although I felt that Tuchman likely took some liberties with the historical sources to give "A Distant Mirror" its lively narrative flow, I can forgiv...moreAlthough I felt that Tuchman likely took some liberties with the historical sources to give "A Distant Mirror" its lively narrative flow, I can forgive that because I suspect that if one wants to present a cohesive picture of events so buried in history, one must be somewhat liberal with filling in the blanks. As it is, Tuchman gives us her best guesses as to what the 14th century was like: smelly peasant houses, cults of death, sacrilege, Black Death, foolhardy knights, and political intrigue. Wonderful little anecdotes bring Tuchman's points to life and humanize even the most obscure people. I loved her description of the bawdy Christmas celebrations the town working class undertook each year, mocking the hypocrisy in the worldly Church with a black, crass mass led by a beggar over the drunken cacophony of the "congregation."
If I took anything away from "A Distant Mirror," it's that the present isn't necessarily as bad as we sometimes think it is. I think I'd rather live today, even with our wars and crazed mall gunmen and consistent geopolitical tensions than 14th century Europe, with its marauding bands of brigands laying waste to fields, villages and towns; its corrupt Church that sold salvation to any who could buy it and damned the rest; its impossibly destructive plague; its wildly incompetent royalty; and its expensive never-ending wars that kept taxes at backbreaking levels. The 21st century isn't so bad after all.(less)
Sometimes you need to be made uncomfortable if you're going to improve yourself. Christensen's new book on missionary work does just that.
But on the o...moreSometimes you need to be made uncomfortable if you're going to improve yourself. Christensen's new book on missionary work does just that.
But on the other hand, sometimes you need a pat on the back for what you're doing right, because when you feel good about yourself and your missionary efforts, you're more likely to feel that you're capable of improving. When you feel like your best efforts aren't good enough, it's hard to muster the gumption to try to do more.
Christensen's book walks that tightrope reasonably well, coming down a little too often on the side of making missionary work sound easy, when it's really not, in my opinion, particularly for introverts. Moreover, a fair amount of this book is inapplicable in certain areas, as much as Christensen claims its recommendations are universal. In the Middle East, for instance, you actually DO have to be careful, if not silent, about sharing the gospel at work.
But I am nitpicking. Christensen is encouraging and clear, and the principles he presents are correct and generally applicable. But it's hard not to feel a little daunted when you've stretched your time and stamina as far as it will go, and there's this impossibly successful man telling you it's easy to bring three or four families per year into he Church, why aren't you doing it? Everyone's life and circumstances are different, and I guess this book is missing a clear acknowledgement of that unassailable fact.(less)
I was a bit overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information that Fukuyama stuffed into this volume, but I learned a ton about Chinese, Indian, and Euro...moreI was a bit overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information that Fukuyama stuffed into this volume, but I learned a ton about Chinese, Indian, and European history from pre-modern times up through roughly the European Enlightenment. This was a real treat, as I have studied these regions relatively little. I found Fukuyama's prose clear, tight, readable, and free of academic jargon, all of which underscores the fact that this book is aimed at normal readers as much as it is to academics. My only quarrel with Fukuyama's work would be its ambitiousness. Articulating a theory of political development that applies across the globe, historically and well as contemporaneously, is a bit much for one or two volumes, as Fukuyama intends to do. I think the scope of the work is what made me feel I was drinking from a firehouse. That said, I largely enjoyed the read, and I have no qualms with Fukuyama's well-reasoned and supported contentions that geography, war, religion, and sometimes just historical luck or haplessness contributed to the rise and development (or decay) of various states. I'm sure professors of comparative politics and international relations might argue with Fukuyama on the content of his work, but I don't know enough to do so.(less)
The most entertaining one-star book you may ever read. If I'm rating based on the sheer page-turner appeal of the first half of the book, I give it tw...moreThe most entertaining one-star book you may ever read. If I'm rating based on the sheer page-turner appeal of the first half of the book, I give it two or three stars. Gideon's Spies is chalk full of harrowing tales of treachery, boldness, and bravery, written in the voice of a murder mystery. The trouble is Thomas's shoddy writing, or, to be fair to Thomas, perhaps it's the publishing house's shoddy editing.
It's hard to take very seriously a book that claims the Lockerbie bombings took place in 1998. Thomas also doesn't do himself any favors in the credibility department by kicking the book off with a lengthy 30 page examination of the Princess Diana conspiracy theories. Look, maybe Mossad was involved -- I don't know. But if you're trying to establish credibility, at least bury the stuff about Di somewhere in the middle once you've convinced the reader that you're to be taken seriously.
Further, there's no coherent narrative to this book. Thomas jumps all over the place chronologically. We start in 1997, then it's the 1920s through the 1960s, then it's the nineties again, then back to the 1980s. It was impossible to pick up a thread. All that was going on was that Thomas was threading together one cool story after another. And, again, I give the guy props for telling some really cool stories. That's why this book has one star instead of zero.
But things completely fall apart after about 350 pages. At that point, the first edition clearly ends, and the final 300 pages is tacked on. Literally tacked on. Thomas did additional research -- kudos for that -- but made seemingly no effort to integrate the updated material with the earlier stuff. He defines terms we already learned. He rehashes stories -- dude, we already heard that story 200 pages ago! He mixes up dates. He does this weird thing when he quotes people where he writes "(insert quote here)," said So-and-So (to the author). I have just never seen that before in a serious, real book, and it came across very sophomoric.
I think Thomas could have done himself a lot of favors, and given his obviously very thorough research a real air of authority and reality if he had integrated the last half of the book into the first half, checked his dates, written a bit less breezily, and left certain stories completely out. As is, this is only passable fiction. Which is a shame, because, if true, this book is groundbreaking. The trouble is we can't take anything we read here seriously, even if we should.(less)
I picked up Revival and Reform in Islam expecting to be bored within five pages, but this ended up being one of the weirdest page-turners I've read. T...moreI picked up Revival and Reform in Islam expecting to be bored within five pages, but this ended up being one of the weirdest page-turners I've read. There was a lot more Yemeni history than I expected, which gave the book the slightest narrative flow, just enough to keep it from bogging down in esoteric religious arguments.
That said, this is not an introduction to Yemen or Islamic thought. Haykel assumes a lot of background knowledge on the part of the reader, particularly regarding Islamic history on the Arabian Peninsula, the Sunni-Shia divide, and further Islamic sectarianism. I suspect the book is aimed at the academic community. But for readers with a strong background in Arabic and Islam, this book is a fantastic -- if somewhat laborious -- look at the arc of politico-religious power in Yemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.(less)
"Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia" had the appearance of a first edition. There were a LOT of typos. But beyond the mechanics, Yizraeli presents s...more"Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia" had the appearance of a first edition. There were a LOT of typos. But beyond the mechanics, Yizraeli presents some interesting substance. My impression is that she's more careful in her analysis than some of the more sensationalist volumes I've read on the Kingdom, so she tends to find greater accuracy in nuance that others miss in 21st century geopolitical rhetoric.
As just one example, I recall reading in Robert Lacey's "Inside the Kingdom" that the Kingdom experienced a resurgence in the power and influence of the religious establishment in the 1980s under King Fahd, in reaction to the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamic puritans. I may be misremembering, but my sense was that Lacey cited the takeover as the driving force behind the 'ulama's expanding power. Yizraeli notes that the crisis at the Grand Mosque was certainly a factor that pushed the royal family to yield greater leeway to the 'ulama in the 1980s, but not until she has carefully established the stranglehold the religious establishment already had on the Kingdom's educational and judicial systems, as well as mechanisms of enforcing public morality, as far back as the 1930s and 1940s in reaction to the 1927 establishment of the Kingdom's first precursor of a Ministry of Education. In short, the religious establishment didn't come roaring out of obscurity in the 1980s to push Saudi Arabia back into the dark ages after a period of openness within the context of rapid development driven by oil price spikes in the 1970s. The truth is, the 'ulama had enormous sway under both King Saud in the 1950s and King Faysal in the 1960s and early 70s. They just got an even broader playing field under Fahd in the 80s.
This is the type of careful research and nuanced conclusions that Yizraeli offers in "Politics and Society." It's a rich and rewarding read, if a bit dry, but the sloppy copyediting doesn't do the book's atmospherics any favors.(less)