you are here: Column Archives > Book Reviews

Book Reviews

We read books aplenty to find the good ones

Featured Review

click to purchase The Historical Jesus : The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish PeasantThe Historical Jesus : The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
by John Dominic Crossan
Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Applebey has wisely noted that, "theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England." Much the same might be said about "historical" looks at Jesus. Such studies usually carry an explicit agenda to either deify or discredit the man. This is mystifying, because those keen on the former seem only to be preaching to the choir, while the latter are... well, metaphors simply fail us. Miraculously, ex-monk Crossan falls in neither camp. Along with a group of scholars no doubt damned by the fundamentalists as secular satans, he delves into Biblical texts with detailed textual analysis and socio-political observation. The chapter on magic versus religion alone is worth the price of admission. (The difference? The social status of the magician.) The end result is an attempt to explain Jesus's place in the ancient world in a context we can understand: a historically rigorous description of his radical message intentionally divorced from the centuries of embellishment which followed. Is this useful for someone trying to understand Christianity? Probably not -- the modern religious establishment doesn't seem to be keeping too close to the original. Do Crossan's conclusions about these later embellishments produce a sort of circularity to his arguments? Yes. But it's still worth a read. Read more at Amazon.com

Our Past Reviews

You'd be Stupid Not To

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: Brilliant account of the dark Fourteenth century in medieval Europe
A Is for American: Language helps to define an American identity
Black Southerners 1619-1869: Best history we've read about blacks in the US. Hands down.
Blood of the Liberals: History of the Liberal tradition from a family member.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before: American and Englishman retrace Captain Cook's voyages of discovery in educational and entertaining style. Review contains an interview with the author.
Communities of Violence: Academically amazing and chock full of amusing detail, a brief history of persecution in the Middle Ages.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds: Nineteenth century wit grapples successfully with timeless idiocy.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: A successful stab at the age-old of question of why some cultures win and some cultures lose.
I, Claudius: Classic work on the border between history and literature.
Liar's Poker: Seminal account of the rise and fall of Wall Street in the 1980s by zeitgeist champion Michael Lewis.
Rats, Lice and History: Brilliant history of disease from a wonderfully crotchety man.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: Bestselling history of successful treasure hunter who recovers Spanish gold.
The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s: One of the truly great general histories: a colorful history of the 1930s.
The Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson in top form talking about the oddities of English.
The Path Between the Seas: This decade's best popular history writer tackles the tragicomedy of the Panama canal. Brilliant.
The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville: Retracing the steps of John Mandeville, medieval pilgrim, travel writer, and precursor to Marco Polo. But were his accounts fictional?
The Wealth and Poverty of Nations : Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor: An economic history with an eye to explaining cultural ascendance.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.: Masterful biography of the most notorious robber baron of them all.

Even Frenchmen and Communists Like These

A Peace to End All Peace: The definitive one-volume history of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East.
Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD, and the Sixties Rebellion: The CIA financed LSD shenanigans. Really.
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943: The first of three books on the liberation of Europe, a compelling history of the Allies' invasion of North Africa.
Constantine's Sword: A Catholic priest wanders through his own personal desert, grappling with the demons of his religion's institutional anti-Semitism.
Crucible of War: All you ever wanted to know about the Seven Years' (French and Indian) war and its role in setting the stage for the American revolution.
Denmark Vesey: Excellent history of the 1822 slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey.
Does America Need a Foreign Policy?: Henry Kissinger eloquently, if with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, states the foreign policy challenges faced by the United States in the 21st century.
Duel: Great treatment of the famous Burr-Hamilton duel.
Duty: A Father His Son & the Man Who Won the War: A personal view of WW2 from the man who dropped The Bomb.
Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair: The commercial battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse underpins a social history of capital punishment in the Gilded Age.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom: Well told, insightful biography of the century's most important president. Not afraid to pull punches.
Hitler's Italian Allies: Intensive study of Mussolini's Fascist society that revolves around a single explanation for Italian losses: comically inept armed forces.
Jefferson Davis, American: A Biography: Successful biography of Jefferson Davis -- a hard guy to figure.
Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error: One of the largest primary sources of medieval times: a day to day chronicle of a real French village. Brilliant.
Nathaniel's Nutmeg: The Age of Exploration centered around the search for spices -- an adventure deftly handled in this book.
One Drop of Blood: A history of race in America.
Oxford Illustrated History of Britain: Brilliant one-volume history of Britain
Pox Americana: Ever think about the role of disease in the American Revolution? Perhaps you should.
The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria: Wonderfully written history of the efforts to bring quinine out of South America and into common use by imperialist Europeans for the treatment of malaria in their colonies.
The Formation of a Persecuting Society : Power and Deviance in Western Europe: How medieval society laid the groundwork for modern prejudice and persecution.
The Mapmakers: A history of mapmaking. Sounds boring? On the contrary, a great history of science.
The Mystery of Capital: Why is the West rich and everyone else poor? Here's the answer.
The Rise of the English Town: Survey of literature on the urbanization of Britain from 1650-1850.
The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians & the Pig: Linguistic Deconstruction of European Anti-Semitism
Theodore Rex: George W. Bush claims to have read this book. Don't let that scare you - it's an excellent biography of the first real 20th century president. It even has big words.
True History of the Kelly Gang: Australian criminal gets goes down in a hail of bullets, but not before he tells his tale. A Booker prize winner.
War and Gender: A masterly sociological, historical, and anthropological survey work on the topic of war.
Zarafa: A giraffe's voyage from deepest Africa to nineteenth Paris tells the story of the collision of two cultures.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon?

A Short History of Byzantium: Breackneck tour of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire from Constantine I to the fall of Contantinople ot the Turks by a true admirer.
Arming America : The Origins of a National Gun Culture: Did America always have the gun cultrue we see in the last half of the twentieth century?
Devil Take the Hindmost: Amusing history of financial speculation through time.
Diplomacy: Henry Kissinger explaining foreign relations since Metternich to the layman.
For God, Country and Coca-Cola: Social and economic history of the world's greatest brand -- a rip-roaring tale.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation: Fresh off biographies of those involved, Joseph J. Ellis aims for another literary prize with a new, mushy, history of America's Founding Fathers.
History of the Present: A collection of eyewitness accounts of post-communist Eastern Europe brings us valuable observations of societies in flux.
Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels: A skeptical but productive look at non-traditional medicine through history.
In an Uncertain World: Page turning Treasury Secretary memoir? If economics or foreign policy interests you, yes.
Magic in the Middle Ages: What did medieval sorts really think about magic? Did they actually believe in dragons?
Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864: History of an ill-fated Union campaign to capture Richmond in the penultimate year of the Civil War.
Operation Rollback: America's Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain: How the US played dirty in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Presidential Inaugurations: Bathroom reader jaunt through American presidents' inaugural balls and keggers.
Straight up or on the Rocks: Jaunty ride through the history of the cocktail, America's contribution to international cuisine.
The Emergence of the Eastern Powers, 1756-1775: Historiography charts the rise of the Eastern powers (Russia and Prussia) of such great importance to the 19th and 20th centures.
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin: Laudatory, readable and inspiring biography of America's rennaisance man, but perhaps a little to stingy with criticism.
The Gates of the Alamo: Historical fiction about the defenders of the Alamo is great summertime reading.
The Historical Jesus : The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant: What did Jesus really say? What sort of peasant could gain such notoriety? You could go to any of thousands of churches for lots of takes on the answer or you could take a shot with historians' tools.
The Metaphysical Club: Frenetic, peripatetic tour of the birth of American intellectualism, focusing on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey.
The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars: A study that is both scholarly and readable of the Albigensian (Cathar) heresy, and one of our best pictures of everday medieval life.
Uncommon Grounds: A caffeine-inspired trip through modernity with java-tinted glasses.
Ungentlemanly Acts: An incest trial in Texas forms the basis for a great book about the Old West.
Worldy Goods: A New History of the Renaissance: Materialist history of the rennaisance scores points for comprehensiveness.

You'll Never Get That Time Back

Churchill: A Biography: Political biographer has a steady pace, uses fun words, and has a keen mind, but not many insights.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: A left-wing attack on the woefully inadequate teaching of history in America -- with its heart in the right place.
The Ice Master: History of a doomed arctic expedition in 1913. Ice aplenty!
John Adams: A great biographer write a bad biography of a second rate president.
The Big Test: A history of the SAT and its attempt to create an American meritocracy.
1996-2006 History House Inc.
All Rights Reserved.