Author: Fritz Stern
Title: Gold and iron: Bismarck, Bleichroder, and the building of the German empire
Rating: 5

Summary: A fascinating look behind the scenes of 19th–century court and diplomatic history, looking at Bismarck–s Jewish banker and the role that financial matters played in the life of the German chancellor (a much much larger one than most previous historians have suspected).

Strongly recommended.

Author: F. H. Hinsley
Title: British intelligence in the second world war: its influence on strategy and operations, volume 3, part 1
Rating: 5

Summary: So the British were reading the German codes in World War II? Obviously this would seem to help them, but how did it actually help them?

Hinsley’s history gives the answers. This volume focuses on the period 1943–1944, and it’s extremely interesting if you know something about those years so you can set his information in context. Highly recommended if you like stories of calculation and influence. Not much spy derring–do, but a lot of bureaucratic hard work and organizations and the occasional lucky break.

Author: J. P. Harris
Title: Douglas Haig and the First World War
Rating: 5

Summary: A superb biography of Britain’s leading general during the First World War. Harris neither excoriates Haig as the “butcher of the Somme” nor lauds him to the skies (as his official biographer did), but rather lays things out and lets the evidence speak for itself. This is harder to do than it sounds, but Harris does a superb job and this book gives a very balanced presentation of Haig.

Though one still sorely wishes that someone else had been in charge during the First World War...

Author: Ralph D. Gray
Title: The national waterway: a history of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, 1769-1965
Rating: 4

Summary: Nice history of a little–known and yet sometimes vitally important piece of transportation in American history.

Author: Andrew Roberts
Title: The holy fox: a biography of Lord Halifax
Rating: 5

Summary: An interesting biography of an elusive figure; Lord Halifax was one of the stranger and more mysterious members of the group that ruled Britain before World War II and one of the few who helped rule it during the war, and much remains unclear about him.

Fascinating if you like biographies of diplomats or bits and pieces of the secret history of World War II.

Author: Lawrence M. Friedman
Title: Dead hands: a social history of wills, trusts, and inheritance law
Rating: 5

Summary: A nice quick summary of how wills and trusts and other portions of inheritance law have worked in American society over the last couple of centuries. It’s not a legal guide; Friedman focuses more on the social role of how property gets transferred, and on the change in American law from a “family of descent” to “a family of choice and affection” with its consequent effects on who is likely to get the money/property/whatever if someone dies without a will.

Friedman discusses the decline in absolute importance of the will and its formalities in favor of alternative means of disposal (such as trusts with their immense flexibility), or joint accounts, and the gradual growth of the ability to improve control of one's assets after death, along with the recent abolition by several states of the Rule Against Perpetuities).

Fun and thought-provoking read.

Author: Michael Burlingame
Title: Abraham Lincoln: a life
Rating: 4

Summary: When you compare your biography of Lincoln to Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln in the introduction, you set yourself up to a very high standard. Burlingame hasn’t quite risen to that level of excellence, but he comes very close.

This is a hugely detailed life of Lincoln, synthesizing a massive amount of research, particularly about his early life, and probing deeply into his psychology.... but not, alas, quite deeply enough. We get a regular list of the things Lincoln was doing, but we never quite get behind the mask and see the soul that moves within the man; Burlingame too often fails to do more than mention what Lincoln did and not get into why.

One is also somewhat skeptical of his tendency, especially in Lincoln's early life, to use evidence from anonymous newspaper articles that Lincoln might have written (particularly when there's a big disconnect between them and his later and public life), or to use vague memories of people decades later after Lincoln's martyrdom. It's true that without such sources much of Lincoln's early life is an utter mystery, but Burlingame might have been more explicit about how he evaluated these various sources.

Comprehensive, filling, but not quite as masterful as he would like to think. A very good academic biography, but not light reading... and for all his attempts to use psychology on Lincon's life, he fails to penetrate to the core.

Still worth reading, but only if you have the time.

Author: B. H. Liddel Hart
Title: Defence of the West
Rating: 3

Summary: A collection of essays, written in 1950 just before the Korean War, on the various problems of military defence of the West, mostly against possible Russian aggression. Much of the material is outdated, but at the points where Hart touches principle rather than the immediate situation, he is often worth reading.

Author: Theodore Beza, translated by Henry Beveridge
Title: The life of John Calvin
Rating: 4

Summary: A vibrant life of John Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva, by one of his younger contemporaries (and perhaps a greater scholar), focusing on Calvin’s life as a leader of the Reformation and the various events around Geneva. Written in the passion of the times, it is much concerned with theological quarrels and gives little sense of Calvin the man. But perhaps the taste in biographies has changed since the 16th century.

Worth reading, but modern seekers after Calvin may prefer a different life.

Author: Jack McNairn and Jerry MacMullen
Title: Ships of the redwood coast
Rating: 4

Summary: A pleasant little read about the lumber schooners that once plied up and down the California coast, salted with many sea stories and illustrated with a decent number of pictures.

Fun if you like nautical history or California history.

Author: Frank Stenton
Title: The Bayeux tapestry: a comprehensive survey
Rating: 4

Summary: The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world’s most interesting documents: a strip of linen more than 200 feet long, embroidered with the story of William’s conquest of England in 1066, probably commissioned by his half–brother and assistant Odo, and most likely made in England (perhaps in Canterbury, where Odo was supervising the county of Kent for William in the late 1060s and early 1070s).

This book includes a number of essays on the Tapestry, an account of its history beginning with cathedral inventories and ranging through its near–destruction during the French Revolution (a local lawyer saved it from being cut up to provide wagon covers!), its use by Napoleon (who planned to make it part of a spectacle celebrating his invasion of England), and its evacuation and preservation during World War II.

The majority of the book consists of a series of plates showing the whole Tapestry, unfortunately mostly in black and white. The few color plates are amazingly vibrant and I wish there were more of them; the Tapestry truly cannot be appreciated only as a matter of line and form.

This is probably the oldest narrative fabric in existence, but we have records of others at least as far back as Homer’s time. The reaping scythe of Time has taken them from us, and we can only wonder what might have once been recorded but is now invisible. Let us be glad that this, at least, was preserved for us.

(And make a note to visit Bayeux if you are ever in Normandy on the northern coast of France. You can see the whole thing there today.)

Author: David Salsburg
Title: The lady tasting tea: how statistics revolutionized science in the twentieth century
Rating: 5

Summary: There is a joy in comprehension, in the realization that you know something now that you did not just a minute ago.

This book gave me many moments of such joy. There are pocket biographies of many of the major figures in statistics, from Karl Pearson through R.A. Fisher up to Deming, together with accounts of how they learned to ask the questions that made their science what it is. So much of modern science and research depends on these techniques that it’s almost discomforting to see the huge gaping philosophical holes at the base of some of them (which explain, for instance, R.A. Fisher’s old-age criticism of the studies linking smoking to cancer; it’s not that he didn’t see the correlations, but that the author of Statistical Methods for Research Scientists was aware of the distinction between correlation and causation, the latter still a very unclear term.)

The book itself is an easy read, chatty and well-done; the footnotes are highly humorous (such as the repeated references to the “law of misonomy”, which explains that a mathematical principle is never actually named for the person who discovered it); the author, himself a statistician, enlivens the book with many personal anecdotes of the figures involved.

It’s not quite as good as E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics or that famous little tome How to Lie with Statistics, but it’s a very fun book if you want to read about the men and women of modern mathematics, or are curious about phrases like “Studies show that...” or “There is a high correlation...” or “There is a 95% probability that...”

Very highly recommended.

Author: Bruce G. Trigger
Title: Understanding early civilizations: a comparative study
Rating: 5

Summary: This is an immense work of synthesis, comparing all we know about the various ways that the earliest recorded civilizations functioned. Dr. Trigger examines Old Kingdom Egypt, Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Yoruba/Benin area in Africa, and the Aztec, Maya, and Inka civilizations in the New World, seeking commanalities and differences in the human condition. There is a very erudite introductory trio of chapters where he discusses the difficulties involved with knowing things, and the various theories of anthropology that have emerged in the past; he hopes that by this comparative study he will be able to prove or disprove some of the theories (dismissing as “arrant intellectual cowardice” the idea that human cultures are too different ever to understand each other.)

It’s an immense job, but a rewarding accomplishment for the reader. Trigger notes that his sample size of seven is limited, but probably large enough to draw some conclusions. Viable political organizations, for instance, seem to be somewhat limited at this level of social development: every one of these was either a territorial state (Egypt, Inka, China) or a collection of city–states (Yoruba, Mesopotamia, Mayans and Aztecs); this suggests that there are a limited number of viable models of government over the long term; more interestingly, these proved surprisingly stable over the years (one type of organization did not transform into another, contra some theories of political evolution). There’s a huge section of the book comparing legal and social and political organization, another on the economies of his seven civilizations, and a last chapter on “cognitive and symbolical” aspects, which includes worldview and religion (all of them were religious).

The total size of the survey is somewhat numbing, but the details are fascinating and the conclusions enlightening. The last two chapters should be required reading for every would-be sociologist or anthropologist or historian.

Author: Dan Kimball
Title: They like Jesus but not the church: insights from emerging generations
Rating: 5

Summary: A very engaging, and very moving, account by a pastor of how to speak to, listen to, reach to, and be moved by, young people growing up outside the church. It’s filled with love and common sense, and an eloquent concern for how to reach people who think that “the church” is a bunch of organized control freaks.

Highly recommended.

Author: Richard Bauckham, editor
Title: The gospel for all Christians: rethinking the gospel audiences
Rating: 5

Summary: The effectiveness of books is not measured by their size; this is a small and effective book. It is also an example of the best sort of English theology: the realization that real people were really doing real things way back there in the best, and the understanding that any description and analysis of their activities must retain that connection with reality.

Briefly stated, the theme of the collection of essays is that the early Christian church was a wide and interconnecting network, with all its known leaders busily running around the Roman Empire, writing letters to each other across seas and continents, visiting new cities and returning to old ones with the message. And, therefore, the current scholarly consensus of the Gospels as being written mostly in small insular communities almost totally unrelated to each other and mostly concerned with in–community affairs, is simply incorrect and must be replaced. The “community” model is useful and valid for Paul’s letters, which often were written to single communities, but the Gospels were intended from the start for a much broader audience.

Then they go on to prove their point. Michael Thompson studies communication between early Church, Loveday Alexander compares what we know of ancient book production with the early Christian gospels, Richard Burridge looks at ancient biographical genres and notes that the Gospels fall pretty squarely into that of bios, or vitae, the lives of ancient statesmen or philosophers or thinkers intended for an hour–long or two–hour public reading, Richard Bauckham contributes his own chapter on ways in which the Gospel of John seems to assume that its readers have previously read Mark's Gospel (which is not quite the same thing as using Mark as a literary source), and two more chapters discuss the implications of all this for study of the Gospels.

Provocative and interesting; highly recommended.

Author: Allan Tucker and Robert A. Bryan
Title: The academic dean: dove, dragon, and diplomat
Rating: 4

Summary: I always wondered what my boss did all day, and now I’ve found out.

This is a fairly comprehensive guide to the art of academic administration at the middle levels, starting with why anyone would want to become a dean (“a rage for order” is the characteristic listed first by the authors, who definitely have a sense of humor to go along with plenty of practical experience and common sense.) The early chapters on making decisions and budgetary planning are a bit sparse, but as they get into the heart of the dean’s job, dealing with chairs, faculty, and students, the book becomes much more interesting and detailed. There are many good stories (probably heavily anonymized), and a lot of case studies; this book could be a useful textbook for a “How to be a Dean” class, though many others interested in academic administration would probably benefit from reading it.

And I now have a much better idea of what my boss does all day.

Author: Alan Watson
Title: The law of the ancient Romans
Rating: 4

Summary: A nice introduction to ancient Roman law, the basic principles of the Twelve Tables, and how things worked in practice, plus later historical development. Easily readable, clearly laid out, and well explained.

If you want to know more about one–third of the reasons the Romans ruled the world (the others being engineering and the Roman legions), this is a good book to pick up.

Author: Thomas R. Rhillips, editor
Title: Roots of strategy
Rating: 5

Summary: Published in 1940, this collection of high–powered strategic thinkers includes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Vegetius The Military Institutions of the Romans, Marshal Saxe’s Reveries on the Art of War, Frederick the Great’s instructions to his generals, and the military maxims of Napoleon.

Interesting stuff, if you like this sort of thing, and it’s interesting to see how much of it is still useful and applicable today.

Author: Erwin Raisz
Title: Principles of cartography
Rating: 5

Summary: You’d think a book about pre–computer/pre-GIS (Geographic Information System) map–making would be obsolete and boring.

It isn’t.

There’s an enormous amount of useful stuff compressed into a very small space here, plenty of detail about how to represent different types of ground (or crops, or land use, or altitude) with a variety of symbols. How to make maps that are visually pleasing and interesting with a minimum of effort and confusion. What sorts of maps are best suited for different purposes. How aerial photographs get turned into maps. What not to do. The author evidently has much practical experience, both in making maps and in teaching students.

And the description of technical processes is fascinating. Many of the processes are obsolete today, but frequently the techniques are easily available in Photoshop or Illustrator or other computer programs, and it’s a joy to finally know what that weird command is supposed to do. (There are a lot of transforms and filters that make more sense to me now).

Cartography is by no means a lost art, and this book was a fun read.

Author: Martin Blumenson
Title: Masters of the art of command
Rating: 3

Summary: A very lightweight selection of chapters on various military figures throughout the ages. It usefully covers different levels of command (ranging from leader of a company to commanders of huge multinational coalitions) and different situations, but it’s a very basic book and doesn’t go much beyond the surface details, with rare exceptions (such as the analysis of Fredenhall, the American corps commander in Tunisia, relieved after the Battle of Kasserine Pass).

Not recommended unless you’re desperate; Blumenson and his assistant, Stokesbury, can usually write much better stuff than this.

Author: Militaergeschichtliches Forschungsamt
Title: Germany and the Second World War, v. 7: the strategic air war in Europe and the war in the West and East Asia 1943–1944/5
Rating: 5

Summary: If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Germany’s long–delayed (and more or less official) history of the Second World War, now in process of publication, has reached the German account of the bomber offensive against Germany, plus the Western Front from D–day to the Battle of the Bulge, along with a brief view of Japan’s last half of the war.

Very much detail, often backed by original archival research, very well–written, and hugely absorbing if you’re into this sort of thing. Vital for an informed understanding of the Second World War.

The reason I’m reading these volumes on LINK+ is that they cost about $300 apiece...

Author: Jeremy Bernstein
Title: Hitler’s uranium club: the secret recordings at Farm Hall
Rating: 4

Summary: Imagine a dozen Nazi scientists locked up in a secret house in England in 1945, men who have been trying to build an atomic bomb for Germany. Now imagine that they have just heard the news of Hiroshima: where they failed, the Americans succeeded. Now imagine that you’re listening to their conversations about what’s going on.

That’s this book, with extensive annotations by Jeremy Bernstein, who knows enough about nuclear physics and bomb design to intelligently annotate the conversation. In the process, he makes it relatively clear that Werner Heisenberg’s later claim that he deliberately sabotaged the German nuclear program is completely incorrect. Heisenberg couldn’t have messed up German attempts to build a bomb, because the reason Germany never built a bomb was that Heisenberg had completely messed up his calculations. (As Bernstein’s scathing annotations demonstrate, this is not a matter of faked ignorance, but of real ignorance; Heisenberg’s clumsy attempts at reconstructing the Allied bomb show that he had never thought through so many of the necessary practicalities, and had no clear idea of the differences between a bomb and a reactor.)

That’s the core of the book. There is a nice introduction explaining the historical background and the various attempts by the German physicists afterwards to distance themselves from the bomb (which ring kind of hollow in the face of some of their wartime lectures); there are quite a few human touches as the physicists worry about their treatment at Farm Hall, their wives and families back home, what they will do after the war (though there is somewhat of a blatant sense of unreality in places; it is as if they had not quite realized that Germany had lost the war, and they were enemies to the victors).

Bernstein’s notes bring up things like the annotations on the original reports by Leslie Grove, the American engineering general in charge of the Manhattan Project (who was very anxious to know just how far the Germans had gotten; amazingly enough, with a two-year lead they were three years behind the Allies in 1945), as well as other references (identifying names mentioned only in passing, or bringing up areas where the German physicists are inventing their excuses as they go.)

A fascinating look at the German atomic projects of World War II, and very worth reading.

Author: Sin–lequi–unninni; translated by John Gardner and John maier
Title: Gilgamesh
Rating: 5

Summary: Of the translation of great poems there is no end, and neither is there an end to the rewriting of old tales. So here a story that was old in 1984 BC is being told again in 1984 AD: of Gilgamesh, two thirds divine and one third human, of his comradery with the wild man Enkidu, of their slaying of monsters, of Enkidu’s death, of Gilgamesh’s quest to find the secret of immortality, and of his failure to achieve it.

The introduction is a bunch of Jungian archetypal psychology and Campbellian hero–journey stuff that contributes, in my opinion, very little to the understanding of the ancient story but much to the psychology of the 20th century; the appendix is a useful note on the difficulties of transcribing and translating the twelve clay tablets that form the basis of the tale.

Most of the book is a column–by–column translation of the poem, very well–done and with copious notes on the various meanings involved. The tale continues to move hearers even today (we note that this is hardly the only translation into English! there are several more on the shelf right beside this). It is regrettable that so much of the tale his missing (for instance, of the thirty–seven lines in Tablet II column 1, only ten words survive), but the parts that remain are wonderful, as once again the reader falls under the poet’s spell:

“Find the copper tablet-box, slip loose the ringbolt made of bronze, Open the mouth to its secrets. Draw out the tablet of lapis lazuli and read it aloud”

Author: Francis Parkman
Title: The discovery of the great west
Rating: 5

Summary: Francis Parkman was, and perhaps still is, America’s greatest narrative historian. (I think Samuel Eliot Morison and Page Smith give him a run for the money, but they’re 20th–century and Parkman was 19th.)

This particular book is both a biography of La Salle, a French trader and explorer, and the discoverer of the Mississippi River, and the story of French exploration of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes during the 1670s and 1680s. This is a sort of history not much in favor now, but the stories remain fascinating; Parkman is a master of suspense and the small details of daily lives (a Franciscan friar putting his breviary in his hood to keep it dry while wading, or La Salle’s letters to his mother saying where he plans to go this year) as well as the broad details of court intrigue and politics reacting on La Salle’s trips (Louis XIV wanting a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi to secure the French hold on North America –– one of the funnier parts of the book is Parkman’s observation after a rather bombastic French claim to the Illinois valley of “Nothing remains of this claim today.”)

All in all, an exciting and occasionally terrifying read. La Salle had an amazing ability to talk his way out of difficulty with various Indian tribes, including ones that had just been to war with each other. The final section, describing La Salle’s murder by his own men and their various fates, was particularly suspenseful.

Someone could make a good film of this, but the most historical parts would be the least believable.

Author: Thomas Noble and Julia Smith, editors
Title: The Cambridge history of Christianity, volume 3: early medieval Christianities, 600-1100
Rating: 4

Summary: It’s an ambitious project, to cover all of Christian history within less than a dozen volumes, and to some extent this book suffers for it. There’s a lot of ground to cover, as we start by ranging over a vast geography, from the falling Roman Empire in the west, through the missionary waves in Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic lands, to the embattled Byzantines in defense of the Christian heartlands against Islam.

Then we start all over again and cover the great theological debates of the period: Christianity and Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Christianity and paganism –– and Christianity against itself, as the Latin and Greek and Semitic churches begin to split apart.

The overall approach is somewhat scattershot, indeed. Because then we get to start all over and consider the different institutions of Christianity: how did monasteries and bishoprics and the overarching patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalm, Constantinople, and Rome) function? How did the Church (or “the churches”) pass laws and govern themselves? How did they fit into, or adapt to, or transform, the social institutions and organizations around them? The coverage is brief, with less than a hundred pages to a century.

Turn over again. Look not at institutions but at lives: what were the daily beliefs of Christians? How did baptism or sermons or the Eucharist, or marriage laws or confession or pilgrimages, change lives. Again, the approach is rather scattered (and the chapter on gender in particular seems somewhat forced), but when you’re trying to cover three continents over five hundred years, you can’t stop to examine details. The result resembles a guidebook of the high points rather than a detailed listing of any one particular point, and the reader often wishes for more detail. Fortunately, notes and bibliography are good.

And we close the book with five more chapters on theology: on books and their use, how Christians understood their inheritance of ideas and what they did with them over that half a millennium, and what they looked forward to at the end of theirs.

Overall, very interesting. I learned a lot about areas I had barely known existed (like Arab Christianity during this period, or the Slavonic missionary efforts). An excellent introduction to what we might call the “hidden years” of Christianity that most of us know little about. The editors probably could have done more to weave these themes into a single story, but it would have been a very big, very long story.

Author: Oliver Warner
Title: Marshal Mannerheim and the Finns
Rating: 4

Summary: A light and cheerful biography of a large and complicated figure. Despite the title, the book is really much more about Mannerheim than about Finland.

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim received decorations from both sides in the First World War and the Second World War. Born a Russian subject in Finland of German blood, Mannerheim ended up fighting both Russia and Germany, and managing at least to preserve the independence of his nation... three times. A Russian cavalry officer before the First World War, he rode across much of Central Asia; a leader of a ragged band of Finnish White Guards, he managed to prevent a Communist takeover of Finland in the savage aftermath of the Russian Revolution; a semi–retired military Marshall; he managed to fight off Soviet attacks in 1940 and 1944 long enough for Finland–s diplomats to arrange a peace treaty.

It’s a strange and inspiring story, though the reader finds himself longing for more detail about the “George Washington of Finland” than this brief account provides. Perhaps the author would consider that judgment a compliment... for his book is interesting, and provokes interest.

Author: Bern L. Bullough and James Brundage, eds.
Title: Sexual practices & the medieval church
Rating: 4

Summary: Mostly an introductory volume trying to cover the broad range of sex in the Middle Ages. There are three sections devoted to theological ideals, the state of the law, and what people actually did. Generally rather a scattershot approach, taking evidence from many places and without much of a sense of how things changed over time or in different areas.

Someone needs to write a more in–depth and useful volume on the subject. (Someone probably already has, since this was published in 1982, but the book is a moderately useful introduction to the subject.)

Author: Ernest J. King and Walter Whitehall
Title: Fleet Admiral King: a naval record
Rating: 4

Summary: As post-war memoirs/autobiographies go, this is not the worst I’ve ever read. (That would be Douglas MacArthur, or possibly Charles de Gaulle). It’s not the best, either (Winston Churchill got the Nobel Prize in Literature for his set).

Rather, it’s workmanlike. It’s focused pretty relentlessly on the public life of Ernest J. King, the commander of the US Navy during World War II. One gets little sense of the personal man behind the public face, and during World War II the record of committee meetings seems to overwhelm things.

The earlier section of the book, covering King’s life up until 1941, is much more interesting. Possibly because the focus is smaller (King as an aide requesting relief because his boss disagreed with him, or the captain twice salvaging a sunken submarine, or the forty–year–old officer learning to fly so he could qualify to take command of a carrier), or perhaps because the memories and deeds of the individual stand out more clearly.

Probably the most valuable part of the book is King’s extreme focus on decentralization as a method of operation: train one’s subordinates, tell them what needs to be done, and why, and leave them strictly alone to work out how. (In modern terms, “Don't micromanage.”) It worked out very successfully.

Author: Winston Churchill
Title: The dawn of liberation: war speeches by the right hon. Winston S. Churchill
Rating: 4

Summary: A collection of Winston Churchill’s war speeches from 1944, the year of D–Day. It’s sort of fun to see the great man varying between reporting the Normandy landings and going straight to questions from the British Parliament about broken windows due to V–1 bombs, or the shortage of medals, or this, or that... there’s a lot of daily business that has to be carried on, war or no war, and amidst planning for the post-war state as well. Probably not the best collection of his speeches ever, but still worth reading for a contemporary look at World War II.