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Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss
Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss
by Laurence Rees
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.64
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Charisma Of Evil, February 26, 2015
How did an undistinguished, poorly educated, and comical looking failed artist manage to become the dictator of a large industrialized nation, lead that nation and the world into global conflict, cause the deaths of millions, and irrevocably alter the course of human history? People have been asking that question about Adolf Hitler for nearly a century. In Hitler's Charisma, Laurence Rees goes a long way towards helping to answer that question. Hitler's boundless self-confidence, his refusal to ever consider an alternative to any plan he intended to set into motion, his endless capacity for hate, and his utter ruthlessness carried him forward on his path from down and out Viennese tramp to German Fuhrer, brushing aside and rendering impotent any opposition . At less than 300 pages plus Notes this is a relatively brief biography, but Rees does an excellent job of depicting Hitler's evil genius and its impact on the world.

I've read a number of biographies of Hitler and histories of World War II, but Rees' book is the first one that really helped me understand the charisma behind the Fuhrer's career. It had always puzzled me how educated, intelligent, and cultured people could fall for a coarse little man who spent hours ranting against his enemies, whose supposed artistic talents were minimal, and who espoused theories and beliefs that were and are absolutely ridiculous. Even recognizing that the Germans were desperate for a savior to lead them to national revival and glory didn't really answer the question "Why?" In Rees' book I really grasped the extent of the magnetism Hitler used and exploited, encouraging Germans to seek new levels of barbarism in order to please him. And I also grasped why Hitler's charisma finally deserted him when defeats and hardships began to bring home to the Germans that he had led them down the darkest of paths.

This is a well written and scholarly account with extensive notes, accessible to both specialists and to general readers. As we approach the 70th anniversary of Hitler's suicide and the final collapse of his war machine, it is more important than ever to study his career and to be on permanent guard against the rise of another such evil genius.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.88
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Broad Sweep Of Human History, February 19, 2015
A standard history of the human race begins with Paleolithic proto-humans, traces the development of modern man or homo sapiens sapiens, then chronicles the beginnings and expansions of human civilization from agriculture to the present. Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens follows that path, but with several intriguing twists. The result is a fascinating book which will challenge pre-conceptions and occasionally annoy or even anger the reader, but will always intrigue.

Harari focusses on the three great revolutions of human history: Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific. He asks how "An Animal of No Significance" managed to become the dominant life form, and whether that animal's learning to produce his own food and then to further harness the natural world to his will through science were boons or setbacks, both for that animal and for the rest of the biosphere. In 20 brilliant chapters Harari asks his readers to consider not only what did happen, but what might have occurred had things turned out slightly differently (the roles of chance and accident are given a lot of attention.) He reveals the mutually agreed upon "stories" that helped shape human societies and questions their validity, not to disillusion but to challenge his readers. At times the tone is unavoidably cynical, but at others there's a real optimistic air (leavened by some cautions here and there). I found Harari's ideas fascinating, especially those in his final chapter "The End of Homo Sapiens" and in his brief but important "Afterword: The Animal That Became a God."

Readers who are looking for detailed chronicles listing, for example, the Emperors of China, Kings and Queens of England, or Presidents of the United States should look elsewhere. But readers who want to be challenged and enlightened will find Sapiens a most enjoyable work. I'm a retired AP World History teacher, and while I was reading there were many moments which made me wish I was back in the classroom so I could share Harari's ideas with my high school students. That's high praise indeed, but Sapiens deserves it and much more.

The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife
The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife
by Ptolemy Tompkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.59
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thoughtful And Intriguing Work, February 14, 2015
Dr. Eben Alexander underwent a profound, life changing experience a few years ago when a sudden attack of bacterial meningitis sent him into a coma and to the very point of death. While unconscious he had a near death experience which altered his life path and enhanced his appreciaton of this and other worlds. His first book on this experience was Proof of Heaven, to which The Map of Heaven is a sequel and expansion. Regardless of your opinion of the reality (if such a term is applicable) of NDEs, Alexander's books are deeply interesting and comforting.

In The Map of Heaven Dr. Alexander takes a broad look at what he observed and came to recognize during his NDE and analyzes it in comparison to the many spiritual and religious traditions about Heaven and the afterlife that are to be found throughout human culture. He recognizes that all of these traditions have parallels which mirror his own experience and those of the many people who have written and spoken to him about theirs. Excerpts from the letters of people who have contacted him are included in the text of The Map of Heaven, and they are both touching and beautiful.

I appreciate Dr. Alexander's work and find it very comforting, especially in his efforts to call on science and religion to seek commonalities rather than conflict. His thoughts on consciousness were most intriguing, particularly since I have recently read Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in which similar ideas are broached. I especially liked Alexander's discussions of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and his references to Plato's "prisoners in the cave" analogy, in which he refers to Arthur Herman's excellent The Cave and the Light.

This is certainly not "just another NDE book" filled with oversimplifications lacking any nuance. It is a thoughtful work written by an intelligent man who is working to come to terms with, and to help others do so as well, a profound insight.

The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood
The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood
by Roger Rosenblatt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.33
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Walking In And Out Of The World, February 12, 2015
This is one of those odd books that defies easy categorization. Is it a memoir, a walking tour of one New York neighborhood, a class assignment, or a strange melange of them all? I can't say, but I do know that I enjoyed it very much.

Roger Rosenblatt's childhood in the 1940s and early 1950s was spent in the upper middle class neighborhood of Gramercy Park in Manhattan, living in what sounds like a very comfortable and roomy apartment overlooking the private park, attending private schools and spending his free time playing private detective. He absorbed mystery stories and movies, played with the neighborhood children, witnessed his parents' unhappy marriage, and eventually married and moved away. He became a writer and professor, returning as an adult to rewalk those neighborhood streets, remembering their and his own histories.

The result of those memories is a meandering, stream-of-consciousness series of short essays or paragraphs with no particular order. Sometimes he relates his own memories, at other times he considers the lives of the many writers who lived in the neighborhood before and during his own time. As I read I came across several stories or anecdotes that I remember having read years ago in a newspaper or magazine. Other stories seem to parallel my own life experiences, though my own childhood was spent far away in another time and place. Roger Rosenblatt seems to have been part of my life for a long time, and I'm very glad that The Boy Detective has come along to help me recognize it.

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend
by Colin Duriez
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.52
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I Am, In Fact, A Hobbit . . .", February 9, 2015
The title of my review is a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien himself. I like it because it emphasizes how personal his writings were: rooted in his own life story; in the history and lore of the English counties from which he and his ancestors came; and above all in the glorious tradition of the languages and mythologies of the Ancient North, the study of which was his life's work. In a little over 200 pages Colin Duriez has created a lively study of Tolkien's life that makes use of the vast amount of material that has been published since Humphrey Carpenter wrote his official biography in the 1970s. This new material includes much more of Tolkien's own writing than was ever published in his lifetime, as well as additional scholarship from Tom Shippey, Dmitra Fimi, John Garth, and many others.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa but was brought to England as a child. His early life was marked by tragedy and poverty: both parents died when he was a child leaving him and his younger brother very badly off. His Catholic faith estranged him from many of his relations, but fortunately he had support and affection from a priest, a small but close coterie of school friends, and from the woman he would eventually marry. He did well in school and at Oxford, but was caught up in World War I, losing two of his best friends and becoming dangerously ill. After his recovery he embarked on an academic career, primarily as a professor of English at Oxford, while keeping up his hobby of inventing languages and the lands, peoples, histories, and genealogies which would accompany them. He also told stories to his four children, and from those stories eventually developed the books for which he became most famous: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The success of those books made him a publishing phenomenon that has continued and intensified in the forty years since his death.

I enjoyed this biography, which benefitted not only from the vast amount of source material but also from Duriez's own previous studies of the Inklings, the celebrated group that included Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others. It is a scholarly work with abundant footnotes and thorough bibliography, yet it is also accessible to those readers who have been drawn to it by the delight they find within the pages of Tolkien's own books.

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
by Janice Hadlow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $29.25
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Royal Dysfunction, February 6, 2015
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Janice Hadlow's superb family biography is far more than just "the private life of King George III" as the subtitle maintains: it is a chronicle of what must be one of the most dysfunctional families ever known. While the details of what went on within the House of Hanover in Britain during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are often harrowing, Hadlow's sympathetic approach, often using psychological analysis to help readers better understand why these arrogant, self-centered, and deeply troubled individuals behaved as they did.

The House of Hanover became the British Royal Family in 1714 not because they were especially clever or gifted but because they were Protestant and malleable (at least part of the time) to the will of Parliament. Their first monarch was King George I, who never learned to speak English very well and who preferred to spend as much time as possible back home in Germany. He had had an unhappy marriage that collapsed when he imprisoned his wife for adultery, leaving her behind when he took the British throne and refusing to allow her to call herself Queen. He and his son became political rivals and enemies, starting a pattern that continued over the next several generations. King George II was a slight improvement on his father in that he loved his wife Queen Caroline and spent more time in Britain, but he was an unpleasant character who came to positively hate his own son and heir, Frederick. Internecine conflict continued until Frederick died unlamented by either parent, leaving his eldest son George to become Prince of Wales as a teenager.

George grew up shy and awkward, intimidated by his grandfather the King and out of the public eye. He became King at 20, abandoned his first love Lady Sarah Lennox, and made a suitable dynastic marriage with Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. There was much to commend about King George III and Queen Charlotte. They were intelligent people who were determined to set a good example of family affection. They had fifteen children over 21 years, raising them in a happy atmosphere with lots of romping. Unfortunately as the children grew up things soured. The seven sons (two others died as infants) were relentlessly criticized and disciplined for any shortcomings and in consequence were rackety and sexually profligate, conducting one affair after another with unsuitable women that produced many illegitimate children, but failing to marry until late in their lives, spending lavishly and getting deep into debt. It was even worse for the six daughters. George III adored them and could not bear to think of any of them leaving him, so with total disregard for their feelings he refused to allow them to marry as young women. Eventually some of them did manage to find husbands in middle age, while the rest had secret love affairs of their own which produced at least one illegitimate child.

The most important of George III's children was the eldest son. George, Prince of Wales made a disastrous marriage that produced one daughter, spent years partying, then became Regent when his father's health broke down in 1810. His daughter Charlotte, raised in isolation from both parents, grew up boisterous and romantic. She made a happy marriage but then died in childbirth in 1817 three years before George III himself passed away, blind and insane.

This long chronicle of family tragedy is fascinating to read. Hadlow does an excellent job of describing the personalities and careers of the Hanovers from generation to generation. It was especially interesting to read about the lives of the various Queens and Princesses, many of whom were intellectually inclined (far more so than the men in the family)and who put up with endless problems caused by their Royal status. I was also intrigued by Hadlow's material on King George III's many illnesses, which contrary to long-established belief may not have been porphyria-related. I finished the book with fresh admiration for the most important of King George III's grandchildren, the future Queen Victoria, who despite her own numerous eccentricities seemed positively normal compared to her forebears and other relations.

Napoleon: A Life
Napoleon: A Life
by Andrew Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.00
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "What A Novel My Life Has Been!", January 29, 2015
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This review is from: Napoleon: A Life (Hardcover)
I chose to title my review using a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte himself, who at the end of his life dictated his own recollections of his storied career. In the capable hands of Andrew Roberts Napoleon's story does indeed read like some sort of fantasy written by the most imaginative of novelists. Roberts is the first of Napoleon's biographers to have access to the thousands of letters he wrote throughout his life, and as a result the Great Conqueror, Hero of the Age, or Antichrist (depending on the point of view of the person describing him) becomes more vivid and more personal, a human being rather than the marble statue or giant painting most of us picture when we hear his name.

Throughout his life Napoleon Bonaparte was remarkable for his self-confidence, ambition, and sang-froid. Roberts shows us that these were characteristics already fully apparent when Napoleon was a child on the island of Corsica, part of a large and somewhat impecunious family. An intelligent student, he distinguished himself with his wide ranging reading that concentrated on history and the classics. He continued to display his scholastic abilities at French military schools, entered the French army shortly before the Revolution broke out, and as a result of the Reign of Terror's high death toll became a general in his twenties. He made an advantageous marriage to the somewhat older and extremely well-connected Josephine de Beauharnais. After winning a series of sensational battles he became a national hero, and the weak post-Revolutionary French leadership sent him off to Egypt in the hope that distance and difficulty would dim his luster. Napoleon did indeed have a difficult time fighting in the Middle East, but upon his return to France he displayed an ability to control and twist the news media in his favor. Overthrowing the government in 1799, he became dictator or First Consul and then proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804.

Roberts demonstrates that as leader of France Napoleon governed very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment: appointing officials based on merit rather than birth, reorganizing and making more efficient the national and local governments, encouraging education, but also reinstituting the slave trade and setting up a surveillance and censorship system that seems sadly modern. He was an extreme micro-manager, writing letters that nit-picked insignificant details about low level official duties and regulations But it is as military leader that Napoleon is best known, and Roberts excels in his descriptions of the many battles and campaigns that led him to dominate all of Europe within a few short years. Roberts walked many of the battlefields himself and includes some invaluable descriptions (including, for example, the fact that a hill from which Napoleon directed one German battle is now to be found just beyond a local McDonald's parking lot!) His descriptions of the battles are vivid and colorful, as is his coverage of the maneuverings and agreements that created what might well have become a unitary French empire in Europe, spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Revolution throughout the Continent.

Roberts does just as good a job of detailing Napoleon's decline and fall, describing the disastrous Russian campaign; the retreat back to France in 1814; the first capitulation and exile to Elba; the sensational return and the Hundred Days that culminated at Waterloo in June 1815; and then the final six years of exile marked by increasing illness and depression on St. Helena. Throughout the 800 pages we are treated again and again to Napoleon's own words, demonstrating his sense of mission and his incredible good luck. Not only the Emperor's but also the personalities of those around him are colorfully and often amusingly depicted, again many times in Napoleon's own words. I have never seen so accurate a summing up of the character of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, for example, than the Emperor's "Why, you are nothing but a s--t in silk stockings." Napoleon's family, including his indomitable mother, second-rate brothers,and beautiful but scheming sisters are all brought to life; as are his many women: the ambitious and intelligent Josephine, his rather frivolous and empty-headed second wife Marie Louise of Austria, a never ending parade of mistresses, and most endearingly, his friendship with 14 year old Betsy Balcombe on St. Helena.

This is an eminently scholarly and entertaining biography that should become the standard work on the Emperor's life for many years to come. Through it readers will become aware of the enormous impact Napoleon Bonaparte's career had on Europe in his own time as well as on our world two centuries later.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.85
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, Challenging, Exciting, January 19, 2015
As one of the "New Atheists" Sam Harris is known for scorning the shallowness of much of what passes for religious thought today. One need not agree with his overall stance that religious belief is unnecessary in order to accept his criticisms of certain aspects of such belief: hostility towards science and reason or an increasing anti-intellectualism, to name two that most disturb me. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion Harris gives his readers a beautifully written and thought provoking discussion of spirituality that is in many ways an account of his own personal journey.

There are five chapters in Waking Up. I found myself intrigued and really excited by much of Chapter 2 "The Mystery of Consciousness" and Chapter 3 "The Riddle of the Self" because they revealed so much that was new to me about what science has begun to discover about the functioning of the mind. Chapter 1 "Spirituality", Chapter 4 "Meditation", and Chapter 5 "Gurus, Death, Drugs, and other Puzzles" were more personal accounts of Harris' own researches, involving pilgrimages to various Indian teachers and sages and experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

This is a thought-provoking work which will inevitably challenge many of one's assumptions and deep beliefs. It certainly should not be avoided on that account, since a belief that cannot withstand a challenge isn't worthy of being held.

The Company of the Dead
The Company of the Dead
by David J. Kowalski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Multiple Histories, January 16, 2015
Any book whose cover bears the words "Alternate History" will immediately catch my eye. If that cover also has a picture of the Titanic then I no longer have any choice in the matter, I'm buying it right then and there and then reading it as quickly as possible. That's what happened a few days ago when I happened upon The Company of the Dead by David J. Kowalski.

As all the world now knows the Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April, 1912 and sank, carrying with it 1500 passengers and crew. Kowalski's book turns on what might have happened had the events of the night of April 14-15 unfolded somewhat differently. A great deal hangs in the balance: Kowalski speculates that slightly altering the fate of the Titanic would have had a massive impact on the unfolding of the twentieth century. To accomplish such an alteration he sends time travellers from a century later back to 1911. Perhaps, however, what actually happened in April 1912 is preferable to the alternative Kowalski proposes. The result is a conflict stretching over a century and across the North American continent, which in Kowalski's hands has a vastly different look.

Overall The Company of the Dead is engaging and entertaining. I most enjoyed the segments that take place on board the Titanic, though Kowalski's speculations on what happened in his alternate twentieth century were also intriguing. A good portion of the middle of the book is taken up with the battles between different groups of time travelers with very different goals, which I found less interesting. Nevertheless I feel confident in recommending this book to Titanic aficionados, lovers of alternate histories, and anyone else who enjoys a good science fiction read.

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life
by Ruth Goodman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.89
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living History, Literally, January 13, 2015
Ruth Goodman went about the process of learning more about the Victorians by living in as Victorian a manner as possible: dressing, eating, sleeping, working, and cooking as our forebears more than a century ago would have done. The result is a fascinating look at the world of Victorian Britons, from early morning to night. Some of her conclusions will be surprising (I would never have guessed that wearing a corset could actually be comfortable) while others are to be expected (Victorian medications richly deserve their lethal reputations).

I learned quite a bit about the day to day lives of the Victorians: how they slept, cooked, ate, washed, worked, and relaxed. It was valuable indeed to have Goodman's frank appraisals of her own experiences and informative and often amusing to read about Victorian theories on health, proper dress, and daily comforts and discomforts. Some things that had long puzzled me were cleared up: a photograph of one of my great-grandmothers who was born and brought up in the late Victorian era shows her sitting on the very edge of her chair. Thanks to Goodman I now realize that such a posture is actually quite comfortable if you are wearing a tightly laced corset.

To be clear, Ruth Goodman is writing about British Victorians, so the experiences of Victorians in America and elsewhere would have been different in some aspects. This is also a very concrete account of day to day life, so while you can gain some insights into the Victorians' religious and social beliefs from it, you would need to do more reading elsewhere to really get into their heads. And in the end Goodman's book should fill its readers with new appreciation for their warm houses, varied and well cooked foods, reasonably comfortable clothing, etc.

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