Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The bookshelf

As usual, I have been trying to read too many books at once:

George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Longest war perhaps, but not Herring's longest book ... his survey of American foreign policy rests on my sidelines, while I'm liking this concise, thoughtful survey of the Vietnam debacle. His notes on further reading are inadvertently amusing for their use of the word "competent," as in "a competent biography," which begings to sound like faint praise when one sees it repeated. I would like to find a solid military history of Vietnam, but the only one he lists is "Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, The History: 1946-1975," which is "a competent military history by a retired senior U.S. Army officer, [that] emphasizes the importance of North Vietnamese strategy in the outcome of the war [good] and concludes -- unconvincingly -- that with a proper strategy the United States might have prevailed [less good]."'s indefatigable reviewer of military histories, R.A. Forczyk, would seem to dispute the "competency" -- he finds "a whitewashed history" by "a major apologist for General Westmoreland," under whom Davidson indeed served. Don't think I'll be picking that one up.

Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism. As a counterpoint to my curiosity about defining conservative thought, I picked up Wolfe's book for a glance at the opposing definition. Whatever liberalism's future, I hope TBA's future will include some posts on Wolfe's main points.

E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. Sanders appears to be the go-to guy on the subject, and his book is reassuringly given to extensive preliminaries on the background, sources, and other issues regarding what we can hope to know about Jesus as a matter of historical records. Enjoyably readable -- the guy is from Texas and writes in the best friendly-English-don-who-knows-everything-there-is-to-know manner.

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War. Evans finishes his trilogy on Nazi Germany, and I was sufficiently impressed by the first two volumes to grab this one in hardback. For a 700-page book, it's a fast read. He does about as well as can be expected in covering only the outline of the war, so that he's not sucked into writing yet another WW2 history -- my only fault is that he spends a trifle too much time on the Soviet perspective, necessary for a WW2 history but not for his work, where an excess page on what happened to Soviet-occupied Poland is a page cut, doubtless, from something happening in Germany. But the book is splendid, incorporates quite recent studies, and manages to appall the reader who thought he couldn't be more appalled by the Nazis.

H.P. Willmot, The Great Crusade: A New Revised History of World War Two. What was that about "yet another WW2 history"? So far, this is the best replacement I've found for Liddell Hart's dated operational-level history of the war. Willmot has opinions and isn't afraid to share them (MacArthur gets mentioned in passing as simply "the clown who lost the Philippines"); he's particularly good at rebutting the myth of German military genius (as opposed to tactical brilliance).

Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. Tyler Cowen recommended this, and I've found it good. Ahamed follows the careers of the central bankers of USA, UK, France, and Germany in the 1920s and their failed responses to the Depression, with Keynes tracked as well in a sort of counterpoint. Explains the gold standard and its pitfalls as well as an economic illiterate like myself could hope to understand it, and the biographical approach doesn't hurt. (His epigraph is Disraeli: "Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." Surely Disraeli can't have been so naive as to believe that literally, though I take his point.)

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