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4 Short Book Reviews

Last week I mentioned that over the past few months I have not been reading a lot of Christian books. But this is not to say that I have not been reading at all. Here are a few of the most noteworthy books I’ve read in that time.

Catherine the Great - This portrait of Catherine the Great may just be the culmination of Robert Massie’s writing career (he is now 82 years old). He has previously written biographies of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanovs, even earning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. I would not be at all surprised to see Catherine the Great merit attention and perhaps a nomination for another Pulitzer. At the very least it has been chosen as one of Amazon’s best 100 books of the year—a good place to begin.

Catherine is a fascinating character and she comes to life through Massie’s pen. If I had a concern about the book, it would be that he may dwell just a little too much on her multitudinous affairs. He has an obvious fascination with Catherine’s sexuality. Having said that, these affairs were critical to her life and her country; they even produced the heir to the Russian throne. I suppose a ruler’s affairs are always a matter of public record. Certainly she cannot be understood apart from her constant parade of lovers.

Of course there is far more to Catherine than that. She was one of those rulers who ruled well and yet poorly; who saw and sympathized with the plight of the majority of her people and yet did very little to address it. She held her nation together, and maintained her rule over it, through sheer force of will. She was brilliant and cunning and yet desperately needy and flawed and ruthless. Massie’s book is a powerful character study of a fascinating woman. I highly recommend it. It must be one of the best books of 2011.

(Yesterday I mentioned my newfound love of audio books. You could join Audible and take this as your free audio book)

Boomerang - Boomerang is a book about Michael Lewis’ “Travels in the New Third World.” Having previous authored The Blind Side, Moneyball, The Big Short and other books that sell in the millions, Lewis turns his attention to the economic plight of the whole world. He travels through Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Germany, to see how these countries have suffered by borrowing endlessly and frittering away countless trillions. At the end the joke is on America as he heads back to the U.S.A. and shows how this is where the problem began and this is where the problem will take deepest root. The book moves at a quick pace and is full of dark humor. It’s also a little bit crude at times, and especially so in Germany, so do be warned.

Here is an example of the book’s dark humor: “As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was to turn their government into a pinata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it.” If you read his chapter on Greece, you’ll see that this was exactly the case.

If you want to know how the world got the way it is and if you want to understand the consequences of a worldwide feeding frenzy on cheap credit, you might be interested in reading Boomerang.

Columbus: The Four Voyages - I picked up this book in an airport bookstore and quite enjoyed it. As you may have surmised from the title, it traces the life of Christopher Columbus through his four voyages. Of course most people are familiar with his first voyage and his discovery of the New World, but few have read of his subsequent travels. The publisher says it nicely: “These later voyages were even more adventurous, violent, and ambiguous, but they revealed Columbus’s uncanny sense of the sea, his mingled brilliance and delusion, and his superb navigational skills. In all these exploits he almost never lost a sailor. By their conclusion, however, Columbus was broken in body and spirit. If the first voyage illustrates the rewards of exploration, the latter voyages illustrate the tragic costs—political, moral, and economic.”

Laurence Bergreen is in his element here and has written quite an interesting book.

In the Plex - Perhaps the most notable book of 2011 is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs. In a case of interesting timing, Steven Levy has written what is essentially a biography of Google, a company that has sometimes been an ally of Apple and sometimes a nemesis; today it is both. Levy traces the origins of the company through its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Those two men found a way of doing something no one else had quite been able to master: making billions of dollars through online advertising. The near-endless streams of revenue generated by advertising has since allowed them to pursue innovation in other fields—email, social media, mobile communications and on and on. 

Like Steve Jobs, Page and Brin are very complex characters whose motives are difficult to understand. Their careers have been marked with great successes and some very public failures. Yet for good or for ill, and at times for both, they have truly changed the world. Not only do they continue to strive to make all of the world’s information available to all of us all of the time, but they have also changed the way we access it and understand it. This is a book to read if you want to understand the massive impact Google has made on me and you and all of us. You’ll be amazed to learn just how far it extends into your life.