A valiant, if superficial, attempt at rendering in readable format this significant period in Muslim history.

THE CALIPH'S SPLENDOR

ISLAM AND THE WEST IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF BAGHDAD

A nonscholarly depiction of the cultured, cosmopolitan world of the early Abbasid caliphate.

Bobrick (Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas, 2009, etc.) gives a fresh overview of the turbulent state of the Middle East and Europe during the 8th century, just as Islam was consolidating power under the Abbasid caliphate of Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, who founded the new capital at Baghdad in 766. His grandson Harun al-Rashid acceded to the caliphate at age 23 in 786, becoming King of Kings, creating a diverse, hierarchical theocracy with many military and administrative trappings held over from the Persian kings. His enlightened rule was fancifully portrayed in the much later Thousand and One Nights, a legendary source Bobrick refers to constantly. At the same time that Harun was establishing Islam’s Golden Age with Baghdad as its jewel, Constantinople as the Christian capital of the East Roman Empire was feeling embattled from within, while Western Europe was overrun by the Lombards and Saxons, and was soon to be violently quelled by Charlemagne. The kingdoms of the Franks and the Abbasids opposed the Byzantines and Umayyads of Spain, and thus had communicated by diplomatic envoy, though inconclusively, as if only to prove to the Muslims that their caliph was of greater wealth and significance. The author helpfully compares the reigns of Charlemagne as the source of Carolingian Renaissance and Harun as instigator of Islam’s Golden Age, though the overall sprawl here, also encompassing Al-Andalus, Empress Irene’s Constantinople and “Iron Charles’ ” Aachen, rather overwhelms this modest effort.

A valiant, if superficial, attempt at rendering in readable format this significant period in Muslim history.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4165-6762-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2012

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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