“In 1788,” David Bell writes, “Robespierre was heading smoothly towards a future as a lonely, irritable pillar of his small town bar association.” How, then, did an “ambitious young provincial lawyer in late eighteenth-century France” become “the major figure in a revolutionary reign of terror?” the New Republic: The Book has Bell’s review of Peter McPhee’s Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (Yale University Press). McPhee is Professor of History at University of Melbourne and has written extensively on the history of modern France. Of his new book, Bell writes:
It is a fine piece of work. McPhee has a sure command of the period, has mastered the voluminous sources on Robespierre, and writes a robust, clean prose. And he practices a virtue that has become all too rare among present-day biographers: concision. (Among current studies of the American Founders, a book this length would most likely be “Part One of Six.”) McPhee is also quite right to point out that Robespierre was in no sense a pathological freak. He was perfectly capable of ordinary human emotions, relationships, even passions.
Read on, here.
For more on major figures in European history, the Wall Street Journal has “How to Start a Dynasty,” a review by Martin Rubin of Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England (Simon & Schuster) by Thomas Penn. Here's the intro:
Everyone knows about Henry VIII, the English king who broke with the Roman Catholic Church so that he could divorce his pious wife and who ended up having five more wives, two of whom he beheaded. A popular ruler and hero to his people, he has become something of a hero onscreen as well, from Alexander Korda's "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933) to the Showtime series "The Tudors." In the series, the lusty but deadly king is naturally the center of attention, but the dynasty's founding father— Henry's own—is nowhere to be seen. As Thomas Penn shows us so vividly in "Winter King," the first Tudor monarch is as fascinating as his son and his life story nearly as full of drama and incident.
And in more history that has made for some great television: the New Republic: The Book has a review by Alexander Nazaryan of The Real Mad Men:The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising (Running Press) by Andrew Cracknell. Here is a sample of the review:
The examined life might be the only kind worth living—unless, that is, you happen to work on Madison Avenue. Here, after all, is Cracknell’s opening serve: “It was the best of times, it was the best of times. To be white, male, and healthy in New York in the 1950s was to be as blessed as any individual at any time in human history.” The bygone rajas of the Hindu Kush might quibble with his certainty, but I take Cracknell’s point. That does mean, however, that Mad Men’s fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with all its casual sexism, misogyny and anti-Semitism, was for better or worse—for the worse, I suspect—an accurate depiction of the times.
You can read the full review, here.
In The New York Times, Walter Isaacson reviews Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press). According to Isaacson, the book “explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it?” As Isaacson suggests, the history of Bell Labs speaks to pressing current problems: “With Bell Labs and other such idea factories disappearing and with government research money endangered, what will propel innovation and job creation for the next 50 years?” You can also find a review of The Idea Factory in Slate, here.
From the "Age of American Innovation" to the "Age of Descent," the theme of the New York Times book pages this week seems to be “American decline.” Jonathan Freedland reviews two books by well-known names in foreign policy: Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, (now author of “a throng of books on the same terrain: what American should do in the world”) has a new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (Basic Books) and Robert Kagan, from Reagan’s State Department and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution has written The World America Made (Alfred A. Knopf). “Reading the books side by side,” Freedland writes, “is to be reminded not only of Carter versus Reagan but also of Kerry versus Bush.” The full review is here. And with a more domestic focus, Jonathan Rauch reviews Edward Luce’s Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (Atlantic Monthly Press) (Luce’s book “could not be bettered as a compendium of American problems”— a better title, Rauch muses, might be “Time to Start Drinking”).
There is a lot of talk of regulation and online social networks around the web these days. The Book has a review by Pierce Stanley of Consent for the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (Basic Books) by Rebecca MacKinnon. According to Stanley, MacKinnon’s book “offers a framework for concerned citizens to understand complex power dynamics among governments, corporations, and citizens of cyberspace.” But ultimately, Stanley concludes, “MacKinnon’s manifesto for “Netizens” is hardly more than the rhetorical puff of her much-celebrated TED talk.” You can read the full review here.
Other reviews this week: The WSJ has a review of Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Viking) about Shin Dong-hyuk’s flight from the North Korean gulag (“parts of ‘Escape from Camp 14’ can be painful to read.” Hardin “writes in a direct, matter-of-fact style that puts that horrors he is relating in dark relief”). Raymond Tallis reviews Eric R. Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understandthe Unconsicous in Art, Mind, and Brain (Random House). And Carol Rolllyson reviews A.N. Wilson's Hitler (Basic Books). The New York Times has a review of Elaine Pagels, Revelations:Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking)
On the heels of Jenna Weissman Joselit’s review in TNR, The New York Times has Janet Maslin’s review of Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Schocken), an account of General Grant’s December 17, 1862 order to expel the Jews from Paducah, Tennessee that is “a careful, warts-and-all accounting of the ugliness surrounding all sides of this incident.”