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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in war (3)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed / Turning Points in Ancient History - Eric H. Cline (2014)

1177 BC : The Year Civilization Collpsed - Eric Cline

Ancient history has been affecting something of a revival of interest in the last 30 years, not only because of it's rich heritage of story which is often converted to popular media (via Hollywood), but because of the amazing strides and discoveries made in history, archeology, anthropology, and even ancient climates. So much new and clarifying information is coming to light in the technical and scientific communities that there is a need for experts with broad experience to retell the narratives of the ancient civilizations to modern audiences.

Into this space has stepped Eric Cline and his spectacular book, "1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed."  For most of us, we didn't even know there was another "Dark Ages" in history- other than the one we learned about in high school or college that equated the European middle ages a period of intellectual and economic regression caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But, in fact, the ancient era called the "Bronze Age" came to a dramatic close in the late 2nd millennium BC, with the sweeping collapse of nearly all prominent civilizations in the ancient world.

It is this ancient, and first, "world wide" collapse of societies that is examined and expounded by Professor Eric H Cline in "1177 BC." What stands out immediately to the reader is the astonishing deluge of interesting history presented in a powerful narrative style. Cline is not just an archaeologist, he is a a genuinely gifted communicator. Thoughtful and witty, he writes as much for the palpable sense of the societies he is studying as he does for the cold hard facts of the major milestones in the narrative. And this makes the book itself a genuine work of art.

But thankfully, we aren't just left with that. Cline backs up his narrative with profound science and a balanced hand both at antiquity and a look to the possibility that future discoveries may turn the narrative a different direction as the history is clarified. Without the pompous self-assuredness that seems to often rest in the tone of modern authors of books on historical topics, Cline avoids condescending to the reader and frankly (but seriously) admits what facts are sure and which are not.  This doesn't weaken his arguments, however, and the entire book becomes much more plausible because of the care and contrition that the author has taken in its presenting.

The topic itself sweeps from ancient Egypt (during the "New Kings" era), to Mesopotamia, to Anatolia and the Hittite empire, to the Cretan (Minoan) and Aegean (Mycenaean) kingdoms and even down through much of the Levant- touching on all the crucial components that came together in the collapse of a truly interconnected world in the Bronze Age. "1177 BC" is as much about economics and politics as it is about war and migrations of mysterious "Sea Peoples". The book unleashes several new concepts about language, texts and lost civilizations. One such civilization, found by archaeology in the last century, is the story of the newly discovered kingdom of Ugarit. That, alone, is a brilliant segment of the book and is a perfect example of what Cline does best- combines his technical eye with a story-teller's prose to paint for us great historical landscapes.

History, especially ancient history, contains some of the most fascinating narratives available. And in the hands of a scholar and writer like Eric Cline, those narratives launch off the page and into our imaginations. The book is repleat with science, but gracious as art. The best ancient history book I have yet to read. Easily qualifies for our Editor's Choice Award. If you have any interest in history, civilizations, grand narratives and even where our own society may be headed-- get this book! You will absolutely love it!


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


History of the World: Fifth Edition - J.M Roberts (2007)

One of the greatest teachers in life is history. The ability to grasp, in our time, the effects and movements of the past is not just a discipline for  university arts departments but an important store of wisdom for all walks of life.  For the last few years, I have been researching specific realms of history- Christian history, church history, period history, economic history. But recently, I hoped to read something of a more comprehensive history that would cover the entire span of our known record of humanity. After a bit of research, I picked "History of the World" by J.M. Roberts as the volume to tackle for this purpose. I am both thankful and delighted to have read this book.

"History of the World" is a dazzlingly readable, even-handed and structured volume that attempts to accomplish the task of summarizing the chronicle of humanity by keeping its task to a defined set of parameters- it centers around the understanding and historiography of civilizations. Its vastness as a work is managed by Roberts keeping a sharp aim at disentangling himself from bringing enumerable details of trivial interest into the picture. He keeps to the task of defining the appearance of man, the eventual birth of civilizations, the development of distinct collectives of civilizations (what would later become nations/peoples), the primary movements and interactions of the civilizations, the main thinkers, leaders and influencers of those civilizations and the uncountable interconnections (and their important effects) amongst the civilizations that would eventually develop. More than just events on a chronographical timeline, Roberts also talks about huge influencing concepts, such as religions, nationalities, ideologies, major epochs, technologies, and pivotal events and people.

What I enjoyed most was the fact that such a voluminous book (a massive 1,200 pages) was consistent throughout the chapters in its approach yet remained enjoyable, even dryly humorous at times. No subject was treated without the possibility of uncovering paradoxical viewpoints- to which Roberts was constantly going to detail to help the reader see. You left feeling like specific points in history weren't as singularly simplistic as you had once heard. I liked this approach as it removes dogmatic viewpoints from becoming the plumb line of how we look back on the past.

The book covers so vast a subject matter I will not try to comprehensively summarize it here. Consider the title of the book as proper and accurate scope of its content and you will be both well informed and well pleased as you read. You will hear and understand everything from pre-historical Paleolithic man, to the first Sumerian and Mesopotamian civilizations, to the ancient classical world of Greek and Roman dominance to Medieval Europe to developing China and India, to enlightenment struck modernity to imperialist Europe, dominated Africa, the explosive growing American continents (as well as their colonialist discovery and expansion), world wars of the 20th century and the trek of history right up to the present day. In one sweeping volume Roberts breathes life and engagement into the real inertia you find flowing across the civilizations of the world through history- man as a change agent in and to his own environment.

In my reviewing of the book, I initially found several small points of minor error (the light treatment of a major figure such as Napoleon, mistaken biographical information on Castro and incorrect dating of the first man on the moon). However, I quickly learned there was an updated edition of the book, which I secured and read. It is clear the editors who updated the work have taken their jobs seriously as the last revision ("The New Penguin History of the World" - rev 5) addressed every issue I could find- either correcting it outright, or properly formatting the narrative to remove the erroneous way in which the data could be misinterpreted. The only very slight hint of editorializing I sensed in the book was the regularly appreciative nods to the last 3 centuries of English history. Roberts occasionally gives possible discounting benevolence to the intentions of the British imperial actions in both its expansive and contracting years. The leaning is slight, but it does tend to feel a bit discounting of a number of times of British actions that surely would not have seemed "better intentioned" as Roberts often implies.  This is a minor and understandable pause in his otherwise amazingly apt and generally conciliatory tone taken for most subjects of uncertain nature.

Overall the book was absolutely astounding in keeping account of such huge proportions of our history while still retaining a vital and engaging narrative. I can't recommend it enough- if you have a spare 60 hours, this is your best bet for a truly great read!


Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes

From Beirut to Jerusalem - Thomas Friedman (1996)

From Beirut to Jerusalem” is the thoughtful memoirs of a Jewish-American journalist based in the Middle East during the 70’s and 80’s. Thomas Friedman was The New York Times bureau chief for five years in Beirut and similarly served as the Israel bureau chief based in Jerusalem, after his term in Lebanon. Friedman writes with the inquisitive mind of a reporter, but the analytical prowess of a seasoned diplomat. What I loved most about this book is the insightful concepts that Friedman mines from his experiences in the Middle East, all the while embedding the reader in the personal narrative of his life in the conflict-ridden countries in which he worked and lived.

For example, after the reader learns about Friedman’s first weeks in Beirut and even the bombing of his own apartment building, the author has the presence of mind to draw out a poignant moment in the lives of a common citizen:

“In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” Hana remarked. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say, ‘Thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”[1]

But Friedman isn’t just reminiscing about the incidentals of common hardships (valuable as that is), he is learning the under-girding truths of the society in which these things are occurring, and synthesizing those ideas into concepts that matter at the macro level:

What made reporting so difficult from Beirut was the fact that there was no center—not politically, not physically; since there was no functioning unified government, there was no authoritative body which reporters could use to check out news stories and no authoritative version of reality to either accept or refute; it was a city without “officials.”[2]

It is this dual gifting that makes the entire book both readable and insightful. Friedman does a good job at nuancing the opinions of the book with broader opinions of the people involved in the meta-stories. You hear about the close, personal work and friend relationships he has with Lebanese, Syrian, Jewish, and Palestinian individuals whose own stories (both tragic and hopeful) color the pages of this book. He tries to give you fair vantage points of all the people he meets- even when they are people he is being threatened by! For example:

Most of the PLO officials and guerrillas with whom I dealt regularly knew I was Jewish and simply did not care; they related to me as the New York Times correspondent, period, and always lived up to their claims to be “anti-Zionist” and not “anti-Jewish.”[3]

Friedman is aware that the world in which he is working is fraught with misunderstanding or indifference- or sometimes both. It is that misunderstand that ultimately leads to conflict and death. The book repeats this cycle, even as Friedman makes his personal journey from the US to Beirut, to Jerusalem and back to the US.  The book is clear that there is a price for not paying attention to others, and not addressing the real issues, as he says powerfully:

The similarity between Israel and Lebanon is rooted in the fact that since the late 1960s both nations have been forced to answer anew the most fundamental question: What kind of state do we want to have—with what boundaries, what system of power sharing, and what values?

...both the Lebanese people and the Israeli people have failed to resolve their differences on these fundamental questions, and have each become politically paralyzed as a result...

Whereas in Lebanon the Cabinet was ineffectual because it represented no one, in Israel the Cabinet was ineffectual because it represented everyone. In Lebanon they called the paralysis “anarchy” and in Israel they called it “national unity,” but the net effect was the same: political gridlock.[4]

The author doesn’t simply cover the details of Lebanon and Israel. He also explores the connections with important middle east entities, both as they impact his host countries and as their own stories restate the tragic narrative of violence in the region. He describes the tragic story of the city of Hama, Syria, whose uprising against its government and brutal ruler President Hafez Assad led to its obliteration, along with tens of thousands of its citizens. Friedman also explores the regime of Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, and its terrible use of force to repress uprisings against its authoritarian government. He even provides a brief historical and contextual lesson for the entire region by describing the Ottoman empire, its end and dissection after World War I, and how the creation of modern Middle East countries forced tribes, languages and religions to be grouped in countries that were artificial constructions of  the British and French powers (which is arguably considered one of the reasons for much internal strife within those countries, even to this day). The book explores the PLO and its self-aggrandizing leader Yasir Arafat, with character and historical descriptions as well. So much is covered in this books 526 pages, it is impossible to summarize it here. Additional highlights include the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the US Marine’s peace keeping mission in Beirut, the Palestinian intifada (uprising), the details of Egypt/Israel’s war and eventual treaty, and much more.

Friedman does not allow his own heritage as a Jewish American to slight his integrity as a reporter. One of the clearest examples of this is his clarity of understanding with the desire of his Jewish compatriots to establish their homeland in the ancient land of Palestine- connected once again to the cities, locations and historical places that have profound meaning to the Jewish heritage. But he isn’t taken up in either Zionist or anti-Jewish extremes. He sees how easily the oppressed nature of the Jewish psyche can turn from being the historical oppressed to the vengeful oppressors:

As I watched these young Jewish terrorists in their yarmulkes and long beards walking around the courtroom, I could not help but be struck by their self-confidence and self-righteousness. The way they strutted about, chatting with their wives, chomping on green apples, and almost literally turning up their noses at the judge, was galling. I had seen the same arrogance among members of Hizbullah, the Party of God, in Beirut. These were simply the Jewish version.[5]

As the book rounds the corners of Friedman’s experience, the author doesn’t fail to speak of the powerful impact of the American superpower on all the nations of the middle east. Friedman fairly criticises and compliments the pertinent aspects of US policy, leadership and communications.  Like he does with all the parties involved, the author mines the nuggets that we rarely think about but, in fact, reflect the pertinent meta-narratives that could make a significant difference.

Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi always liked to tell me that the most important thing an American friend can offer Arabs and Israelis is American optimism—exactly the kind of innocent can-do optimism that the Marines brought to Beirut. The Marines’ almost childlike belief that every problem has a solution, that people will respond to reason, and that the future can triumph over the past is a wonderful thing, Yaron would remind me. It is a trait which Americans should never be ashamed of.[6]

Friedman gets to specifics, speaking about Israeli Prime Ministers, PLO leader Arafat (and others), and even US diplomats.  My favorite section of the book is actually after the final chapter. In the epilogue, Friedman drills down to succinct, explicit steps that could be helpful for addressing the conflict of the Palestinian and Jewish /Arab conflict. His insights here are most thoughtful, although now perhaps more hopeful than the post-9/11 world might concede (his book is written in 1996, before the WTC and 9/11 attacks). Still, I believe it is the optimism that Friedman points to (in his quote about Americans) that can lead his other points to fruition. This is an expansive, engaging, personal, yet grandly comprehensive book. Very well done and worth reading.


Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


[1] Friedman, Thomas L, “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. (New York, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday 1996)., Kindle Edition, Page 29

[2] Ibid., Page 50

[3] Ibid., Page 57

[4] Ibid., Page 252, 253

[5] Ibid., Page 306

[6] Ibid., Page 499