God Is Not Great
By Christopher Hitchens
Published in 2007
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
God Is Not Great is one of the last books written by the great Christopher Hitchens prior to his death in 2011.
God Is Not Great is an always amusing and often thought provoking collection of arguments against all of the world’s largest and most well practiced religions. The writing is incredibly witty and entertaining - in terms of sheer entertainment value, then God Is Not Great is by far the most amusing book I’ve read so far in 2020.
Hitchens’ arguments draw heavily on his lengthy career as a journalistic correspondent in the most war torn regions of the world. He points out that there is no evidence that, even by religious moral standards, religious people are any more or less moral than atheists.
Hitchens then systematically tears apart the major religious texts of all religions - the old testament, the new testament, and the Quran. He points out the inconsistencies and highlights passages that are likely to have been written by different authors.
Hitchens even spends some time to tear down modern New Age cults and “Eastern” branded guru religions.
One very interesting thing that I didn’t know about Hitchens was that he used to be a Marxist in his youth. His morality and politics, at the time he wrote “God Is Not Great,” are painfully within the domain of mainstream Western liberalism.
Strikingly, he discounts the lessons of the Social Darwinist authors of the early 20th centuries. He sees no value in pre-Darwinian and Galtonian religious attitudes that vaguely predict the philosophy of evolution by the sword. I have personally come to interpret the Abrahamic religions as injunctions to create an evolutionary advantageous society for irrational reasons for the followers of the great faiths.
I think that all of Hitchen’s factual and logical arguments against religion are spot on.
By contrast, Hitchens moral arguments assume an ethical system based on egalitarianism, empathy, and compassion. If Hitchens were to assume instead a “Might Makes Right” system of ethics as promulgated by luminaries such as Ragnar Redbeard, then all of his moral arguments fall flat.
I would like to end this review by pointing out that I listened to the audiobook. The audiobook is read by Christopher Hitchens himself, and is incredibly well produced.
Overall, I recommend this book strongly, especially for those among my friends who are strongly religious. Hitchens arguments are poignant, and bound to challenge even the most well informed believers.
A Concise History of the Arabs
By John McHugo
Published in September 2013
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
After reading the introduction and first chapter, I knew everything that I needed to know about this book.
Here are the three reasons why I did not finish reading this book:
1 - This book was written for politically motivated reasons. It doesn’t seek to be an objective history of the Arabs, but instead exists to advance a modern pro-tolerance 21st century agenda.
2 - I am not the target audience. This book is written for novices, not people who have spent the last 2 years studying Islam in depth.
3 - The goal of the book is to engage in vague discourse about Western civilization and the clash of civilizations. I already look at the world through a Eurasianist historical lens rather than a presentist Westernist or liberal lens, and therefore already agree with many of the conclusions
The book might be good for other people, I do not know because I didn’t read it. But it wasn’t for me.
Chronicles of the Crusades
By Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin, edited by Caroline Smith
Published in 1207 (Villehardouin) and 1308 (Joinville), translated in 2009
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This book is a collection of different accounts of the crusades. It includes several accounts, the most notable being Jean de Joinville’s account of the crusades of King Saint Louis 9 and Villehardouin’s account of the sack of Constantinople during the 4th crusade.
It also includes a detailed and epic account of the siege of Acre during the 3rd crusade.
I decided to read this as the last of the major crusades history books I would read because I believed it would be the most difficult to understand.
Following the events is nearly impossible without resorting to third party analysis by historians.
However, there are so many fantastic memorable details and passages that are often lost in the accounts of modern historians.
The book opens with an account of a pogrom against the Jews of England to celebrate the coronation of King Richard the Lionheart. The description of the pogrom is almost hilarious to modern readers, barring the fact that it describes the slaughter and abuse of innocent Jews. They describe Jews as engaging in human sacrifice to “their father the devil” and as “bloodsuckers.” The way that the authors describe the slaughter of the Jews as a cleaning, and chastise Winchester for sparing its Jewry is morbidly fascinating.
There is also a list of miracles which occur during the siege of Acre during the third crusade. Most of the miracles detail ways that soldiers survived various events and attacks in improbable fashions. However, some of the miracles are hilarious to a modern audience. The most ludicrous is when the crusaders describe with joys how a Muslim Egyptian admiral accidentally drops a pot of Greek fire during a naval battle and burns off his penis.
The description of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is also fascinating. The authors basically write about him as if he were an actual Roman empire and the Roman empire never fell. They describe the generals of antiquity who fought against the Persians as “our generals” and describe the Persians as a strange sort of proto Muslims. The crusaders also use antiquity place names to describe their Muslim adversaries - for example, one Muslim archer is described as a “Parthian.”
There are countless hilarious passages that just threw me into fits of uncontrollable laughter.
King Richard the Lionheart and one of his political opponents within the crusader camp essentially engage in a medieval rap battle, writing disparaging poems about each other. Old Jewish men lure young boys to cross Europe so that they can cannibalize them. Most amusing though are the descriptions of Muslims, Jews, Greek Othodox people, and other non-Catholics.
When studying history, reading primary accounts is extremely important. These accounts are often quite difficult to understand and interpret without first diving into the period. Especially accounts as old as these.
A fascinating and enjoyable read - these accounts constitute of long and somewhat dull passages punctuated by exciting battles, fascinating anachronisms, and hilarious (by modern standards) descriptions of events.
The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades
By Roger Crowley
Published in November 2019
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
The Accursed Tower covers the last days of the Holy Land crusades and the ultimate defeat of the crusaders at the hands of the Mamluks during the battle of Acre.
I’d like to preface the rest of my review by saying that this is one of the best books about the crusades that I have read. However, I do not believe it has much interest or value to an audience that hasn’t spent a significant amount of time studying the crusades and aquainting themselves with the topics at hand.
During the 6th crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II purchases Jerusalem from the faltering Ayyubid dynasty. Without any bloodshed, Frederick II manages to recapture the city of God. The Holy Roman Emperor then returns to Europe, leaving Jerusalem undefended.
As a result, 15 years later, Jerusalem once again falls back into Muslim hands.
This triggers a desperate series of final crusades to recapture the holy land. The 7th, 8th, Baron’s, and 9th crusades all seek to restore Jerusalem to the crusader states. However, due to the lack of resources and poor coordination between European crusaders all fail to make significant gains. Some of the crusades succeed in delaying the inevitable, but none recapture Jerusalem.
The situation becomes more dire due to an indirect chain of events triggered by the Mongol invasion.
As Mongol armies ravage the heartland of Islam, there is a coup in Ayyubid Egypt. The decadent and complacent Ayyubid regime faces a slave uprising, and is taken over by the Mamluks.
The Mamluks are hardened, mostly Turkish, slave warriors. Mamluk means
The new Mamluk government immediately catches wind of the possibility of an alliance between the crusaders and Mongols. The Mamluks realize that such an alliance could possibly spell the end of Islam itself.
So, seeking to prevent their enemies from uniting, the Mamluks realize that its time to wipe out the crusaders once and for all.
The Mamluks proceed to raise the largest armies Islam has ever seen at this point (at least in the time since the Islamic golden age). They then systematically go from crusader stronghold to crusader stronghold, perpetuating a genocide against the infidels.
The last crusader bastion to fall is Acre. However, Acre is divided internally. The crusaders have been caught up in civil wars and suffer from internal discord. As a result, Acre is rapidly overwhelmed by Muslim forces. All of the men are killed. The surviving women and children are sold into sex slavery.
The fall of Acre marks the end of the crusades.
I cannot help but feel a certain sense of justice. The genocide perpetrated by the Mamluks against the crusaders is a far cry from the mercy and decency of Saladin. It, if anything, echoes the early conquests of the crusaders and the sacks of cities like Antioch and Jerusalem.
This is an excellent history book for those who have enough background information to follow what is going on. For those with less knowledge of the crusades, frequent visits to Wikipedia might be necessary to properly follow the action.
It is also the only book that focuses primarily on the end, rather than beginning, of the crusades. A must read for anyone who wants to know how the crusader states finally come to an end.
The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors
By Dan Jones
Published in September 2017
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
One topic that comes up repeatedly when studying the crusades is that of the knightly orders. This book is a concise history of the Knights Templar and, to a lesser extent, the other knightly orders that came to dominate the holy land.
The Knights Templar were founded by Hugues de Payens in the years following the first crusade. Originally the knights consisted of a band of 9 men who pledged to protect pilgrims and travellers visiting the holy land. After roughly a decade of existence, the templars receive an official endorsement from the Vatican, solidifying their institution.
Over time, the templars become an increasingly important part of the defense of the holy land from the Muslim forces. They establish a solid reputation as honest and trustworthy brokers and fearsome holy warriors.
Most interestingly, they also slowly evolve into investment bankers. Their reputation for trustworthiness leads to their accumulation of wealth as various lords and merchants begin using their temples to store wealth.
Slowly, they accumulate vast sums of wealth and come to own banks and castles across Europe. This wealth attracts the ire of political enemies and also leads to decadence within their own ranks. Eventually, political disputes with the king of France and popes lead to their persecution. The templars are hunted down across Europe, and their order comes to an end in the early 1300s.
The incredible amounts of power and influence of the templars will lead to centuries of speculation about their continued survival and role as a behind the scenes power in Europe. Many movies and books speculating about them have been written with plots ranging from their evolution into freemasons or their contact with aliens.
Dan Jones attempts to refute these conspiracy theories in his book, although after reading it, I am even more convinced that there might be a kernel of truth to these allegations. Many knights templar in places like Spain never disappeared - they simply rebranded their orders adopting new names of uniforms. Furthermore, there are rumors that they were able to hide their incredible wealth prior to their persecution.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in crusades history. I would classify the difficulty of this book as intermediate - as long as the reader has a basic understanding of the chronology and major events of the crusades, this book will be easy to understand.
It is an enjoyable read for both amateur crusades historians like myself as well as novices. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in learning about Europe’s first investment bankers as well as those who want to learn the truth about the Templars.
The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East
By Nicholas Morton
Published in February 2018
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Field of Blood describes the events before, during, and after the battle of Ager Sanguinis in 1119.
The failed crusader invasion of Aleppo and the ensuing battle of Ager Sanguinis would mark a turning point in the history of the crusades. Prior to 1119, the crusaders seemed like an indestructible and unstoppable force.
The crusader defeat in 1119 saw a turning point.
In material terms, the crusader states lose significant amounts of money, manpower, and resources during the battle. Even more importantly, the illusion of crusader invincibility was shattered. The Christian forces lost confidence, while the Muslim forces gained confidence.
Aleppo also plays a pivotal role in the civil war which started in 2011 and is still raging today in Syria. This goes to show that, despite radical changes in society and technology, geography continues to shape geopolitics and causes history to echo.
I enjoyed reading “The Field of Blood” and thought it was an excellent book. However, I do not recommend this book to a general audience. Many of the topics covered are quite advanced, and require a deep pre-existing knowledge of the events that precede and proceed the battle of Ager Sanguinis.
I highly recommend this very competently written and sourced narrative history to my fellow amateur historians who want to go very deep into the specific details of the crusades.
Spies in the Congo: America's Atomic Mission in World War II
By Susan Williams
Published in August 2016
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Spies in the Congo is a history of how the US acquired the uranium that it used for its nuclear weapons during WW2.
During World War 2, the largest uranium mine in the world was located in the far eastern Katanga province of the country today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the time, the DRC was a colony of Belgium. This would cause a world of trouble during WW2.
At the start of the war, Belgium was a neutral country. Its population was divided between Flemish, French, and German speakers. As a result, when Belgium was invaded by Germany, part of the population sided with the Germans, and part with the allies.
As a result, the white population of the Belgian congo was divided in terms of their support for the axis and allies. The world’s largest uranium mine, the Shinkolobwe mine, was operated by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (Mining Union of Upper-Katanga).
Spies from all major powers attempting to build nuclear bombs, both axis and allied, flocked to the Belgian Congo to attempt to gain control of the uranium mines in the country.
Spies in the Congo is a fantastic book that recounts the stories of the lives and the men and women who secured the United States uranium supply during the second world war. The spies faced numerous challenges such as assasination attempts, riots, and diplomatic intrigue.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about intelligence operations, WW2, nuclear warfare, and the DRC.
Canoeing the Congo: The First Source-to-Sea Descent of the Congo River
By Phil Harwood
Published in 2012
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
I decided to read this book because my brother in law spent some time working in the DRC, and I want to learn more about the country in preparation for my own visit.
This book is a short account of former British royal marine commando and explorer Phil Harwood’s canoe journey from the source of the Congo river to the sea.
His journey starts at one of the many sources of the Congo river in Zambia. He makes his way to Lubumbashi, and from there goes on a half year long canoe journey across the DRC.
Along the way, he faces many dangers: malaria, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, rapids, and waterfalls. More dangerous than nature, are the locals. Hostile tribes where the men are predominantly aggressive bandits and corrupt thieving officials plague his voyage. He also makes a number of friends such as a pentacostal pastor and a family of fishermen with a homemade shotgun who help him along the way.
Overall, I found the book to be a pretty good read. It reminded me of stories that my brother in law has told me over the years about his time in the DRC. However, at some times, Harwood does come off as kinda douchey, especially when he praises himself throughout his book.
Canoeing the Congo is an excellent read for anyone preparing to go to the DRC, or other central African countries, but not good enough that I universally recommend it.
The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades
By Paul M. Cobb
Published in September 2016
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading God’s Battalions, a mediocre book written by a modern day Catholic to defend the morality of actions taken by crusaders almost 1000 years ago, I had low expectations. I’ve also read The Ornament of the World, a book written by a modern leftist that justly praises the achievements of Islamic Spain while completely ignoring the rape, genocide, and oppression of that regime.
I kind of expected the Race for Paradise to be in the same tradition - I thought it would be a snuff job to cover up past atrocities and justify modern political ideas.
Instead, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a well written and in depth history of the crusades from an Islamic perspective without any modern political commentary.
Paul M. Cobb is a non-Muslim Islamic history specialist who took previously untrasnalted Islamic sources, and built a narrative history of the crusades using those.
I learned so many fascinating details which really helped me understand the crusades. For example, the Muslims didn’t perceive the crusades as a large scale apocalyptic event. Some local Muslim rulers even supported the crusaders with supplies and free passage hoping that they would fight their internal political enemies within the Islamic ummah.
Few of the stories in this book were new to me, as I’ve read many of the same ones in the many other crusades books that I’ve read. However, the emphasis was on different details and different characters.
The audiobook is also very well recorded. It is read by the author, which is always the best. It also came with a downloadable file that includes diagrams of all of the maps that are included in the original book.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who knows a little about the crusades but wants to learn more from a different perspective. Really good and well produced audiobook version.
By Neal Stephenson
Published in 1995
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
(This review does not contain any spoilers.)
This may be the weirdest book that I have ever read.
I rarely read fiction books. This book reminded me why.
Diamond Age has a lot of interesting technology ideas jam packed into it: ideas about the future of education, nanotechnology, virtual reality, warfare, travel, etc… It also explores how a stateless anarcho-capitalist society might look like, which is always great.
However, for every interesting idea that is explored in Diamond Age, there are frustrating problems which partially ruin the book.
First, the book has a number of plot holes that don’t make sense. There are also a number of weird, gratuitous, and rapey sex scenes. the first two thirds of the book are great, but the last third of the book is predominantly about orgies and wild sex. The motivations of characters are often confusing - it seems like many characters do things because Stephenson wants them to act in a certain way, not because it would make sense for them to act in those ways given the variables of their universe. All combat and fighting is cringy and unrealistic. Most infuriating, many questions are raised that are never answered. A number of characters disappear, with no explanation or further mention.
These problems are not present in the beginning of the book, but slowly become increasingly ubiquitous. By the end of Diamond Age, the book devolves into a meaningless postmodern literary experiment in chaos.
The book takes place in the same universe as Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Diamond Age, although there is no need to read the books in order, and each constitutes a standalone story. The three books are separated by decades / centuries.
Few books have been as recommended to me as Diamond Age. Due to the overwhelming wave of recommendations from friends, my wife and I decided to read it.
Like Snow Crash, I didn’t find it particularly interesting. It was interesting, but wasn’t by any means great.
After reading Diamond Age and Snow Crash, I am now completely sure of one thing: Neal Stephenson is definitely insane.
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