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The Origins of Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism
by Hannah Arendt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.28
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71 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The foundational study of totalitarianism., March 26, 2005
Over half a century after its original publication, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" is still the most important treatise on totalitarianism in government. Arendt's book is also just as relevant and important today as it was in the mid-20th Century.

The book is divided into three main sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. In the first section, Arendt tracks the rise of antisemitism in Europe, looking mainly at 19th Century events and situations that aided the spread of this phenomenon through European culture. The Dreyfus Affair, which sharply divided France and ultimately became a political battle between antisemites and their opponents at the end of the 19th Century, gets more attention than any other event in this chapter.

In the middle section on imperialism, Arendt shows how the rise and fall of the continental European imperialist movements of the 19th Century (mainly, Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism) helped set the stage for their 20th Century totalitarian successors. As she puts it in opening the chapter on "the Pan Movements": "Nazism and Bolshevism owe more to Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (respectively) than to any other ideology or political movement. This is most evident in foreign politics, where the strategies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia have followed so closely the well-known programs of conquest outlined by the pan-movements before and during the first World War that totalitarian aims have frequently been mistaken for the pursuance of some permanent German or Russian interests. While neither Hitler nor Stalin has ever acknowledged his debt to imperialism in the development of his methods of rule, neither has hesitated to admit his indebtedness to the pan-movements' ideology or to imitate their slogans." It's a testament to the truth and prescience of Arendt's work that the preceding passage remains as timely as ever, given the ongoing collapse of the Pan-Arabist movement which dominated the Middle East during the second half of the 20th Century and the battle between democracy and totalitarian Islamofascism over which will rise up next.

The first two sections lead perfectly into the third and most important part of the book: the section on totalitarianism. Arendt shows how Nazism and Bolshevism were much more similar in their goals, practices, ideologies, and enemies than many people often believe or want to admit. They were both mass movements that sprang from cultures that had largely dismissed any objective truths. (Arendt: "The ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.") Both movements sought power for the sake of power, were rigidly ideological, made widespread use of terror, sought not only to punish and kill their enemies (as many brutal governments before them had done) but to dehumanize them and erase any trace of their existence from the memories of the governments' other subjects, a phenomenon introduced to the world by these 20th Century totalitarian governments.

Many people have said in the decades since the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag that the world should never let these atrocities happen again. But the sad irony is that many of these same people then promote a materialist, existentialist worldview that are the breeding grounds for the same radical totalitarian governments that ultimately carry out these atrocities. Arendt recognized this problem: "...We actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know. There is only one thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all others, and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born... Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man."

So where do we go from here? "Never again?" I'd love to think so, but I'm not betting on it. I don't think Hannah Arendt would either.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2008 3:33 PM PST


Jonathan Edwards: A Life
Jonathan Edwards: A Life
by George M. Marsden
Edition: Hardcover
52 used & new from $8.00

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A serious look at Edwards' life and times., February 17, 2005
In introducing his biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden writes, "My aspiration... is to make Edwards intelligible to widely diverse audiences by first attempting to depict him in his own time and in his own terms." Marsden achieved his goal, and it was a goal that was critical to making a great biography of Jonathan Edwards, something this book most definitely is.

Jonathan Edwards is easily one of the most intelligent and important figures in American history. He comes as close as any other American thinker to being a true, Western, classical philosopher. His most famous discourse on the nature of the human will, "Freedom of the Will" as it is commonly known, is one of the greatest contributions to that several millenia old debate. And while Marsden is a good story-teller and great at developing the culture and general worldview that shaped the setting in which the events of Edwards' life took place, it is when he is summarizing Edwards' theosophy that he truly excels in this book. (Summarizing Edwards' theological and philosophical arguments is not an easy task by any stretch and has so often been done incorrectly, whether accidentally or intentionally.)

Edwards, the grandson of another famous Colonial American pastor, Solomon Stoddard, lived a pretty normal and uneventful life, even for most religiously pious puritans in 18th Century New England. While he was clearly blessed with a sharp intellect and a strong drive to succeed that was recognizable from early on in his life, he never fought in any wars, never had any major scandals in his life (whether committed by himself or those close to him), was a responsible, slightly overbearing student while in college at Yale, and lived what was just simply as holy a life as would seem to be humanly possible. This doesn't make for an exciting biographical subject, but Marsden does a great job creating a story that allows the reader to meet Edwards but also gain a deep understanding of an often overlooked place and time in American history that were fundamental to laying the cultural foundation for what became the United States of America. It's nearly impossible for 21st Century Americans to place themselves in the mindset of an 18th Century New Englander, so many of the former group simply dismiss the beliefs of the latter as a mere historical footnote. As Marsden writes, to the New Englander of that time the premise of hell "was as genuine a reality as China." Try explaining that to a 21st Century Westerner and then getting them to take seriously, on an intellectual level, the worldview of an entire region of adherents to such a belief. Yet the generation raised by Jonathan Edwards and his generally like-minded (generally Calvinist) peers would later set in motion a project that would result in the most powerful nation in the history of the planet Earth. To dismiss or flippantly mock the core beliefs of the fathers and teachers of such a nation's creators is to do nothing but brag of one's own ignorance.

Marsden clearly realizes how big a mistake it is to do this, so he has worked very hard to understand exactly what it was that Jonathan Edwards believed and was arguing. It is in the sections where Marsden is presenting Edwards' theology that this otherwise good biography becomes excellent. Marsden, on Edwards' view of the will and its freedom:

"In Edwards' view the only sensible way to talk of the free will was that one is free to do what one wants to do. That was also, he said, the common sense meaning of freedom. 'Let the person come by his volition or choice how he will, yet, if he is able, and there is nothing in the way to hinder his pursuing and executing his will, the man is fully and perfectly free, according to the primary and common notion of freedom.' If having free will, then, meant being free to do what wanted to do, that was another way of saying that one was free to follow one's own strongest motive. Choosing and acting freely could not mean anything other than that one was free to follow one's own strongest inclinations. The alternative, said Edwards, that there was an agent called the 'will' inside us that was free not to follow our own strongest inclination, is absurd."

This is an excellent biography and as close to a "must-read" for fans of historical American leaders as one will find.


Darkness at Noon
Darkness at Noon
by Arthur Koestler
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When does the end justify the means?, January 22, 2005
"The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it. But WHO will be proved right? It will only be known later. Meanwhile he is bound to act on credit and to sell his soul to the devil, in the hope of history's absolution... Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means." -- from the diary of N.S. Rubashov in "Darkness at Noon"

V.S Rubashov is the fictional protagonist of Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." He is a high-ranking official in a Marxist totalitarian state based on the real-life Soviet Union under Stalin. The book begins with Rubashov being imprisoned in one of the dungeons of the Communist system he helped create. Rubashov was a top member of the Party from the beginning of the Revolution and a close associate of the leader, "No. 1" as he's called by his subjects, but just like in so many Communist states of the 20th Century, the machine that Rubashov helped set in motion eventually steamrolled over most of its makers as well.

"Darkness at Noon" is simply brilliant and will be especially interesting for anyone familiar with Stalin's Show Trials of the 1930s (the specific event on which the book is most directly based). The reader is placed in the mind of Rubashov as he debates with himself about whether what he once fully believed (that the Party is justified in whatever it decides) is still true, even if that means his imprisonment and execution. Who decides what is morally wrong, do such concepts as "right" and "wrong" even exist in reality, and what is not permissible in pursuit of the ideal? Alone in his cell, in between his prison interrogations at the hands of lower-ranked products (Ivanov and the even younger and more ruthless Gletkin) of the Communist machine he helped create, Rubashov struggles with these questions. If there is a morality higher than simply what the Party judges to be correct, was his whole life - soon to be ending as he well knows (having been on the executing end of the equation so many times) - lived in testament to a lie? How would one even face such a conclusion other than with complete despair?

A reader sitting far removed from Rubashov's situation might think, "Of course what the Party is doing is wrong. Whatever that may mean about his life, it would be better for Rubashov to face the truth before dying." But why is what the Party doing wrong? Who is anyone else to say? If there is no higher morality, no "God," then what is there but efficiency and power? One might disagree with the EFFICIENCY of the Party's methods, but that is no grounds for disagreement with the Party's MORALITY. For Rubashov to come to a conclusion that what the Party is doing is morally wrong (as opposed to merely inefficient) and therefore choose not to sign his name to a dishonest confession as his tormentors are demanding, he has to have an appeal to an authority greater than the Party. But what in the world would THAT be?

As the interrogator Gletkin puts it, explaining to Rubashov why the end justifies the means: "The bulwark must be held, at any price and with any sacrifice. The leader of the Party recognized this principle with unrivalled clearsightedness, and has consistently applied it... We did not recoil from crushing our own organizations abroad when the interests of the Bastion required it. We did not recoil from co-operation with the police of reactionary countries in order to suppress revolutionary movements which came at the wrong moment. We did not recoil from betraying our friends and compromising with our enemies, in order to preserve the Bastion. That was the task which history had given us, the representative of the first victorious revolution. The short-sighted, the aesthetes, the moralists did not understand. But the leader of the Revolution understood that all depended on one thing: to be the better stayer."

Who is anyone to say that the leader is morally wrong?
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 9, 2010 6:28 PM PST


Homage to Catalonia
Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.39
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest war books of the 20th Century., January 9, 2005
This review is from: Homage to Catalonia (Paperback)
It's been said that George Orwell is every conservative's favorite liberal and every liberal's favorite conservative. This book likely did more to create that sentiment than any of Orwell's other works.

"Homage to Catalonia" is the story of Orwell's experience fighting in Spain, during 1936 and 1937, against Franco's forces that were seeking to overthrow the Spanish government. Orwell originally traveled to Spain simply to report on the war as a journalist, but falling in love with the people of Catalonia and their revolutionary, honestly egalitarian spirit, Orwell joined the Workers' Party of Marxist Unity (POUM) militia.

Once enlisted, Orwell traveled to the front lines of the fight in Catalonia. His observations of life on the front-line and the daily struggles for a soldier during war are at times funny, fascinating, and depressing. Remarking on war, especially the politics of war, Orwell writes, "I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful;" yet Orwell seems supernaturally honest throughout this book.

After risking his life for the socialist cause he believed in, even being shot in the neck, Orwell eventually realized that many people he once assumed were fighting for the same anti-Fascist cause as he were really no different than the enemy he was fighting. The anti-Fascist soldiers were generally divided into Anarchists (who believed that a Marxist revolution should be the immediate goal) and Communists (who believed that the Fascists must be defeated first and the Marxist revolution addressed after that). Orwell originally sided with the Communists in believing that the Fascists should be defeated first, but over time he came to realize that all the Communists were really wanting was the installation of their own totalitarian system. This left Orwell to fight with and support the Anarchists who were far more genuine than the Communists and simply wanted to be free from any oppressive rule. After months of political bickering, the pro-Stalin Communists in Spain began to arrest and remove the Anarchists with whom they had originally partnered in the fight against Franco, and many of Orwell's friends and brothers-in-arms were arrested and executed. Orwell, still recovering from his gunshot wound to the neck, barely managed to escape from Spain and avoid being caught in the brutal purge of the Anarchists. Knowing he had done nothing morally wrong or anything for which he should logically be arrested, Orwell inititally wanted to stay and help free his friends arrested in the Communist crackdown. But he soon came to realize, "It did not matter what I had done or not done. This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of `Trotskyism'. The fact that I had served in the P.O.U.M. militia was quite enough to get me into prison. It was no use hanging on to the English notion that you are safe so long as you keep the law. Practically the law was what the police chose to make it."

Orwell wrote "Homage to Catalonia" seven months after he escaped from Spain. By then he had time to consider the politics of the war from a distance and relate what he had seen and heard from people who never experienced life on the front-line of a war. The parts of the book in which he addresses these people are the most fascinating. In several of these passages Orwell writes of how he came to the realization that many of the people driving the Marxist ideas he once supported were every bit as dishonest and treacherous as the right-wing Fascists he always hated. As he writes of the press covering the war, "One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right." Orwell's scorn extends beyond the left-wing press to wealthy English travelers through Spain at the time who were oblivious or apathetic to the widespread misery around them. Writes Orwell, "Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): 'I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona... perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only "normal" and "decent", but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.' It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl."

It must have been hard for Orwell to come to terms with the fact that many people he once supported were no less repugnant than his enemies. When faced with such a situation, human beings have a natural urge to deny or make excuses for what they are seeing or hearing, for whatever their reasons. It is hard for people to admit when they are wrong, especially regarding something they care deeply about. Orwell faced this situation, and he chose honesty over ideology. Sadly, many of his contemporaries did not.


Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power
Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power
by David Aikman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.41
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73 of 80 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fair summary of the growth of Christianity in China., December 31, 2004
"Jesus in Beijing" is a quick summary of the events, leaders, and movements behind the explosion in Christianity in China over the past few decades. Aikman breaks his book up into several sections devoted to topics such as the Chinese church patriarchs, the slightly less influential but still very important church "uncles," famous Chinese Christian women, the roots of Christianity in China, how Christianity is influencing different artists, musicians, and others contributing to present-day Chinese culture, and most controversially, the debate between the government-approved churches of the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the "underground" house churches.

While Aikman is clearly more favorable to the side of the house churches and their leaders, I do believe he was fair to Bishop Ding, the leader of the government's Three Self Patriotic Movement. While it can be argued that Ding has done much to advance Christian freedom in China, Ding also made statements in the past that go beyond simple respect for Chinese law... statements that were clearly pro-Communist. Ding also at times has professed a theology that is beyond liberal to a point that is simply not Christian. Ultimately, it is somewhat telling that Ding never spent a minute in prison while so many other Christians during Mao's reign, especially church leaders, were being brutally beaten and imprisoned for years at a time.

Aikman sides at the end of the book with Chinese Christians that are critical of far right American groups (including some Christians) that seem only to want to exploit Chinese government abuses (which are indefensible) in order to shut off US contact and trade with China. He supports the Christians who believe that China is making progress, even if it has a long way to go. He clearly believes with these Chinese Christian moderates that the worst thing the US could do would be to intentionally antagonize and isolate the Chinese government. So Aikman does understand that there is a reactionary element running in some Christian groups, both inside and outside of China, but he also realizes that there is something suspicious about Christians that are too comfortable with what is still a totalitarian, often repressive, Chinese government as well.

This book isn't the most exciting read as there are several typos, and Aikman's writing is fairly dry. But he has done his homework, he clearly cares about the people of China, both Christian and non-Christian, and he does a good job here of introducing the key players and laying out the background behind a fascinating movement occuring in a country that could very well dominate the 21st century, for good or bad, as much as America dominated the last century.


Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley
Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley
by Peter Kreeft
Edition: Paperback
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to an important debate., December 31, 2004
In "Between Heaven and Hell," Peter Kreeft sets up a fictional debate between C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy, shortly after their deaths which, amazingly, all came on November 22nd, 1963. Kreeft uses Lewis, Kennedy, and Huxley as representatives of 3 common worldviews and their interpretation on Christianity: orthodox Christianity, modernist Christianity, and "Orientalist" Christianity, respectively.

Kreeft, an orthodox Catholic, naturally sides with the general worldview of the Anglican Lewis over the modernist Catholic Kennedy and the Buddhist Huxley, but Kreeft is fair and respectful towards Kennedy and Huxley. While the book is very short at only a little over 100 pages, in informal, conversational format, it provides a good synopsis of how the three men interpreted the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as told in the New Testament.

The first half of the book is Lewis debating Kennedy on the subject of Christianity. (Huxley agrees to listen and argue his philosophy later on, mainly against Lewis of course, which he does in the 2nd half of the book.) Kennedy's worldview is definitely the most prevalent in the present-day, Western world, and therefore, the debate between Lewis and Kennedy will be the more interesting of the two for most readers raised in a Western culture. The Lewis-Kennedy debate is basically a summation of several Lewis books, most of which were themselves an argument for orthodox Christianity versus the modernist Christian and post-Christian worldview. Lewis handles Kennedy fairly easily, and Kennedy fans or readers sharing Kennedy's worldview will probably find themselves wanting to propose several objections to Kreeft in support of their side of the debate. But this is a quick summary after all, and Kreeft is obviously aware of that.

Moving on to the pantheist Huxley, the debate becomes slightly more foreign and rare to the average Westerner used to debates between monotheists and atheists. Huxley was a brilliant man (as all three were, of course), and his philosophy was deep, well-argued, and at times, abstruse. Kreeft uses this debate to answer the question often put to Christians, phrased in one form or another, "How is Jesus different than other major religious gurus?" This debate, again being a quick summary, leaves a few pantheist arguments on the table and isn't ended as easily as the Lewis dispatching of Kennedy's case is, but it suffices.

I recommend this book as a good introduction to the believing Christian's argument against modernist Christianity and Eastern philosophy. The book is entertaining and can be read in a couple hours, if not less.


How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It
by Arthur Herman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.99
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good summary of the Scottish Enlightenment and its results., November 26, 2004
Despite its annoying title, "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" is an enjoyable book and a good summary of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its author, Arthur Herman, doesn't make the case that the Scotch "invented the modern world" any more than several other nations can claim to have "invented the modern world," but Herman also doesn't truly attempt to argue such a case either, to his credit. Instead, he gives a good summary of Scotland's history and the contributions that many Scotch and people of Scottish descent have made to human progress.

At the beginning of the book, Herman gives a quick but sufficient summary of Scotland's pre-Enlightenment history, focusing primarily on its union with England to form Great Britain in 1707 and the Jacobite revolt of 1745, the unsuccessful attempt by France, in cooperation with Highland Scots, to restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne. With the solidification of the British union after the "Forty-five," Scotland truly began to make its monumental contributions to science, economics, medicine, philosophy, commerce, and numerous other fields at the foundation of modern Western culture.

One area where Herman should have expanded his focus is on the extent that Scottish Presbyterianism laid the groundwork for the Scottish Enlightenment. While Herman does note that the Enlightenment in Scotland differed from the Enlightenment in France in that the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment saw progress and Christianity as completely compatible, if not necessary, he fails to look at why the Calvinist philosophy prevalent in 18th Century Scotland (and therefore, much of 18th Century North America) would encourage an environment so friendly to human progress. Despite what Herman seems to believe, the Scottish Enlightenment did not happen in spite of the Calvinist Presbyterian culture from which it came but largely because of it.

In the final chapters of his book, Herman tells the stories of 19th Century Scotch migrations to America, Australia, India, Africa, and several other areas where the Scottish Enlightenment would leave its imprint. It's in these chapters that the book's title seems less the obvious exaggeration that it is. Thanks to these migrations, the teachings and discoveries of Adam Smith, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson and the other notables of the Scottish Enlightenment eventually did have a monumental impact on many of the most powerful nations in the world today.


History of the Peloponnesian War
History of the Peloponnesian War
by Thucydides
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.25
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Greek War Classic, August 14, 2004
"History of the Peloponnesian War" is Thucyidides' account of the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta which began in 431 BC. The Penguin edition is just over 600 pages and can be very slow for a modern-day reader, but it is worth the effort as much of it is still amazingly practical, especially in today's wartime world. Unfortunately Thucydides' account ends 7 years before the end of the war (which Sparta won, but in a rather Pyrrhic victory) so be prepared for some disappointment at the conclusion of a long read.

The narration of the book is rather dry at points (which is understandable in that it was written 2400+ years ago), but Thucydides' summations of the major speeches at high points of the war are excellent. His recap of the speech made by the Athenian general Pericles, appealing to his people for continuation of the battle at a point when their morale was very low, reads like it could have been taken from a present-day newspaper within the past few years.

Be prepared to have to give some effort to get through this book, but you'll be better off for doing so.


Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Edition: Hardcover
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great summary of an often overlooked founder of America., June 19, 2004
This review is from: Alexander Hamilton (Hardcover)
"Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow is a great look at a Alexander Hamilton's life, one of the most important lives in American history. Chernow is a talented writer and keeps the book flowing steadily, making a rather lengthy book interesting throughout. He is definitely a fan of Hamilton and throughout the book he makes a case that Hamilton, due to his death at a young age leaving his opponents years to tarnish his image, has been unfairly downplayed from his deserved status in American history. Chernow's case is strong, and it is hard not to finish this book with a negative impression of Thomas Jefferson's and John Adams' behavior towards Hamilton during and after his life.
Hamilton's life was inarguably fascinating. Hamilton was born into a poor, broken family in Nevis and raised by a mother constantly plagued by relationship and financial problems (many of her own making). It is a testament to how hard a worker Hamilton was that he rose from such a lowly situation to become one of the most powerful men in the early days of the United States. Moving from Nevis to New York as a teenager, Hamilton obtained a law degree from King's College (now Columbia University). Along with his reknowned skills as a lawyer, his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, from a wealthy Albany family, helped cement his rise from poverty into the upper ranks of colonial America. From there Hamilton would go on to be a top aide to George Washington in the Revolutionary War and later one of Washington's most trusted advisers, becoming America's first Treasury Secretary. Hamilton used this position to bring a struggling collection of states into one capitalist financial system that would become the foundation of the greatest economic power the world has ever known. While doing this, Hamilton, a proud New Yorker, also established himself as the person most responsible for New York's being the economic capital of the world today.
Chernow does put too heavy a gloss on Hamilton though. Hamilton's involvement in an extra-marital affair with an illiterate wretch of a woman, with the consent of her nefarious husband who used the relationship to blackmail Hamilton for financial gain, was shockingly stupid for a man of Hamilton's intellect and abilities. Chernow acknowledges as much but seems to downplay the seriousness, both personally and professionally, of the relationship. Hamilton's eventual public confession of the affair lead to his adultery's often being used against him by political opponents, which while not necessarily fair or moral of them either, should have been expected. Chernow excoriates Hamilton's opponents for having done so while only mildly owning up to Hamilton's role in the matter. Chernow also brushes over Hamilton's having held or transfered slaves via the Schuyler family, despite his being a staunch abolitionist. While Hamilton definitely did much to fight against the spread of slavery and is to be commended for it, he was still stuck in a culture where slavery was prevalent. Rather than just admitting that Hamilton likely oversaw slaves in his home at times in his life, however infrequently, Chernow fights very hard to spin away an item from Hamilton appearing to show his having purchased two slaves. This stretch by Chernow leaves his slightly excessive demonizing of Jefferson looking a bit biased, if not hypocritical.
Most biographers come to love their subjects and tend to paint the prettiest portrait of them that is possible, if their subjects are at all likeable, as Hamilton definitely is. Knowing this, Chernow can be forgiven his downplaying of some of Hamilton's character flaws, especially given that the book in its entirety is a very interesting, extensively-researched summary of a life whose public works produced an impact that is still being felt around the world today.


The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
Edition: Paperback
728 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still the perfect parody of New York City., November 5, 2003
Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" was first published in 1987, but 16 years later it is still the best parody of the political and social scene in New York City. Combining his everyday, "fly-over country"-style conservatism with his keen wit, Wolfe lays out a story that sends characters crashing into one another from all socioeconomic levels across the Big Apple.
Sherman McCoy, a stereotypical, ego-maniacal bond-trader, is Wolfe's typical protagonist. The main plot starts when McCoy and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, take a wrong turn returning from Kennedy airport one night, leaving them lost in a bad neighborhood in the Bronx. This is where they cross paths with Henry Lamb, a seemingly innocent kid stuck in a sad world, and Roland Auburn, a neighbor of Lamb's and local drug-dealing hoodlum. In their haste to escape from a neigborhood within their city but light years from anything they recognize, Sherman and Maria strike Lamb with their car, critically injuring him. Once a struggling NYC journalist learns of the story, it becomes a perfect case for the politicians, media, and attorneys to latch on to for their own selfish gain. From there the Lamb case blows up into an ordeal beyond anyone's control, but one that could only descend into such madness in New York.
Wolfe's writing is funny, entertaining, and searing. Through his fictional characters, he presents the perfect condemnation of the ridiculous excesses found in some NYC political and social circles, with specific real-life examples coming naturally to any reader's mind.


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