Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn
Whether you are openly antisemitic, quietly biased, or solidly pro-Israel, no one can rationally deny the impact the State of Israel has made on the international scene since its creation in 1948. In the years following WWII, about a hundred new sovereign countries have emerged, but only a handful of them are democracies, and none of them can boast the economic success of Israel. No other country occupies the concerns of the UN, aiming more than a third of its total resolutions at Israel. No other sovereignty ignites controversy with quite the intensity as Israel.
On the threshold of the hundred year anniversary since the Balfour Declaration, you will find volumes of material detailing Israel’s creation and history; however, none of them is as succinct as Gordis’s most recent contribution. You will appreciate the organization, maps, glossary of “non-English terms,” and the mini-biographies of key figures. More critically, you will enjoy the fluid motion of Gordis’s writing style, which somehow condenses thousands of details into memorable, thought-provoking passages.
“Living in Israel meant knowing that there was no keyhole through which to glimpse the future”. Nevertheless, Gordis grants us more than a peek at the past and present.
The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, A Brief History
When it comes to reading textbooks or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.
This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none-too-easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad, because it is such an import period in history that lead to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.
The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth, but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.
What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic, or depiction of a graphic source. While, again, it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates, and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.
Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill
Rough Riders is not just another biography of Theodore Roosevelt as much as a biography of a rag tag group of men gathered out of a sense of patriotism to fight against a natural enemy, in this case, Spain. Teddy Roosevelt had a cross to bear as his father had skipped out on service in the Civil War, calls of entitlement had dogged him throughout the years. He became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, but would seek active service in the US Military as the country girded for war against Spain, especially after the sinking of the Maine in 1898. Roosevelt would become a Lt. Colonel in the First US Volunteer Cavalry that would set out for Cuba.The mass of volunteers would be hindered by the limited amount of space in the regiment. Colorful characters from NY all the way to Arizona would merge into a cohesive group that would face limited supplies, hazardous weather conditions, food-borne illness, and still manage to triumph in Cuba and defeat the Spaniards. Rough Riders is an examination of soldiers fighting for their country, led by an intrepid adventurer with something to prove. Teddy Roosevelt loved his country and longed to prove his mettle. His men loved him, his leadership wasn’t perfect, but he was effective and knew when to take chances. Mark Lee Gardner’s trip back into the turbulent 1890s conflict illustrates Roosevelt as a natural born leader who would be march from leadership of the Rough Riders to running the United States only 3 years later. It would be a stepping stone that he wouldn’t take for granted. A great, must read about a fascinating individual.
ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland
David McDonnell tells Ireland’s history through a unique lens, tracing the history of the original Clan Donnell (Donald in Scotland) and offshoot clans (McDonnells, McDonalds, O’Donnells, etc.) that dominated the Hebrides Islands, Highland Scotland, and much of Ireland, until the English subjugated the island in the 17th century.
McDonnell has a story-teller’s voice, though his richly textured and layered 900-plus-page book is factual. Familiar historic figures star in this story, but the author shows a Donnell, a Donald, or a McDonnell on the scene at every turn, including “The Troubles” of the 1900s. It’s a mesmerizing book that feels like a personal journey through Ireland’s history.
In the Clan Era, there was much travel between Scotland and what was Ireland at that time: not a nation, but an amalgam of small kingdoms headed by clan leaders chosen by their clan members and associated clans. The McDonnell clan was predominant in the north but migrated south as well. “Redshanks” and “Gallowglass warriors” (well-trained Scots mercenaries loyal to McDonnell clan in Northern Ireland) could be rented out to other clans in both places, which gave the McDonnells more power and land for their clans. (The English were terrified of these warriors.)
Early Scots who immigrated assimilated easily into the Irish clans. Viking invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries also assimilated into Celtic clans. The Celtic clan culture worked for more than a thousand years, and author McDonnell raises a good question: Who really is Irish? Ireland was invaded over centuries by many different groups — all of whom wove themselves into the culture and became part of the Ireland we know today.
A clan leader’s first concern was to provide what was best for the clan. That changed with the Norman and English invasions in the late 12th century. Clan leaders who made peace with the invaders became earls instead; their clan members became tenants. Later, English colonizers turned this to their own advantage: when these Irish earls were recalcitrant, they were replaced with English landlords, most of them absentee landlords. The subjugation of Ireland became complete under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I (who encouraged Protestants from the Scottish lowlands to immigrate into what is now Ulster), and Cromwell, whose system of forfeiture reduced most Irish to subsistence or homelessness long before the potato blight of the 1840s. James I and Cromwell set the scenes for “The Hunger” and Diaspora of the 1840s, and the horrendous “Troubles” in the 20th century. At every event in this absorbing book, one meets a McDonnell or two — some on one side, some on the other. There were McDonnell landlords and earls, McDonnell members of the IRA. Some fought for England in WWI.
As promised, McDonnell doesn’t litter pages with footnotes, claiming they make for a tedious read. I do think the book could have benefitted from appendices in the back with more timelines and maps. An index would have been helpful, too. I had to do a lot of re-reading and page-turning to keep track of events. That said, this is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Irish history.
The Unfolding of American Labor Law
In this academically challenging and scholarly rigorous debut book, Kahana carefully traces the evolution of labor law in the United States from the period after the Revolutionary War, until the middle of the nineteenth century. The book is divided into two parts: the first spells out the evolution of American labor law, the second takes on a particular case study.
In the first part of the book, Kahana sets out to argue that American labor law, rather than being an off-shoot of English common law, is best described as a unique entity shaped by the distinct realities of American social circumstances. The main target of his arguments are those scholars who have argued that American labor law found its roots in the master-servant relationship in feudal England, which formed the basis of English common law, and which was therefore central in the formation of American law. Kahana works carefully through both legal commentaries, as well as records of the way that the law was actually practiced to develop his arguments for American exceptionalism on this topic.
In the second part of the book, Kahana digs into a particular case study — Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw – and outlines his particular important contributions to American Labor Law. His role exemplified the American, rather than English system, through a strong defense of unionization, and a constant reliance on the American tradition of individual responsibility and individual freedom. Kahana makes a credible argument in favor of Shaw’s important place in developing the uniquely American labor law tradition.
Throughout these two broad arguments, Kahana is constantly teasing out the differences in these two approaches, and supporting his argument for American exceptionalism. The audience for this academic text will include both legal and historical scholars, as well as those with a specific interest in the history of this area of law. The lay-reader will find the content of this text daunting, but anyone with an interest in this specialized area of legal history will want to become familiar with the arguments contained here.
Edward IV, England’s Forgotten Warrior King
Dr. Corbet’s Edward IV, England’s Forgotten Warrior King is a fascinating biographical account of King Edward IV, who ruled England off and on in the mid-fifteenth century. The first section of this book tells the story of Edward IV’s rise, his first reign, and his second reign after regaining the throne. The second section looks at the aftermath of Edward’s passing, at his young successor Edward V, and his brother Richard, the man named Protector, who would go on to take the throne for himself, as well as at the legacy Edward IV left behind. The last section looks at the people in Edward IV’s life — his family, the other major power players if the English aristocracy, various other rulers in Europe at the time, and, of course, Edward’s enemies. Included at the back are various useful appendices.
King Edward the Fourth is not a historical person with whom I have much familiarity. My historical interests lie in different eras, and different regions. Yet, for all that, I do enjoy historic accounts, and this was no exception. I found this book to be easy to read, with none of the dryness I have had the misfortune to come across in some of my other scholarly readings, making it a good choice for both the passing enthusiast, as well as the more serious scholar. While admittedly unfamiliar with this particular person, the book and its contents seemed well-researched and accurate. In addition, there is an extensive bibliography section for further research of one’s own into the materials the author used in crafting his biography of Edward IV.
My favorite part was the very first section. While arguably the shortest of the sections, it was where most of the interesting action to me, relatively speaking, took place. Corbet’s take on Edward IV gave me a greater appreciation for the man, the King, and the times in which he lived. If you have an interest in Edward IV in particular, or in English history of the fifteenth century, I would highly recommend giving Dr. Anthony Corbet’s Edward IV, England’s Forgotten Warrior King a read.