Death in Florence
By Paul Strathern
Published in October 2016
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Death in Florence is the history of one of the most fascinating figures in Florentine history: Girolamo Savonarola.
Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk devoted to a life of poverty and piety. He resented the degenerate and decadent life of the Italian Renaissance. Worse, he hated tyranny.
When Cosimo de Medici’s idiotic great grandson, Piero the Unfortunate, fails to act at the approach of a French army, Savonarola seizes power. He has Piero exiled, and miraculously manages to turn the French army away through his charisma. As a result of this heroic act, Savonarola discovers that he has the popular mandate. The “small people” flock to his banner, and he becomes the hero of the common man.
Savonarola’s short reign over Florence is marked by revolution. During his four year long reign of terror, he embarks on a revolution worthy of Mao or Lenin. He creates real republican reform, giving the suppressed poor people of Florence a voice for the first time. He embarks on radical religious reform, harassing homosexuals, prostitutes, and merchants. He burns all of Florence’s “vanities” (fine art, perfume, luxury goods, etc…).
Finally, the book ends with the downfall of Savonarola and his regime. His reign of terror comes to an end; he is excommunicated; betrayed by his supporters; and burnt at the stake/hung (at the same time!).
Savonarola’s charisma oozes through the pages of this book. I can really imagine being there. As a sort of modern revolutionary myself (albeit not a reactionary catholic) I can really emphasize with Savonarola’s goals. Savonarola seems completely honest - far more so than Mao or Lenin. He is a truly pious man who only wanted the best for his people.
I really like Paul Strathern’s books. His writing style is crisp, and describes scenes well but not excessively. If the worst type of writing is academic writing which gratuitously uses big words; then the second worst type of writing is overly saccharine literary diarrhea; and the best must be the no-bullshit style of Paul Strathern.
I strongly recommend this book - and not just for those who want to learn more about the Renaissance. This is a cautionary tale for any would-be dreamers and revolutionaries who want to hear the same old story, but are tired of reading about the Soviet Union. This book masterfully captures the spirit of the day in all of its delightful horror.
The House of Medici
By Christopher Hibbert
Published in May 1999
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book was shockingly similar to Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. It covered the same topics, in the same order, and used the same primary sources. Even much of the analysis was identical. I cannot help but wonder if Strathern’s book was actually an updated version of this one.
Because of the similarities, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I might have otherwise. I nevertheless decided to finish it because I think that the Medicis are an interesting topic. Overall, I don’t think that I learned that much, but rather reinforced my understanding of the timelines / chronology of events.
The writing style is neither good nor bad; it is not very memorable. The content is a simple biography of the most important members of the Medici family throughout the ages (Cosimo, Lorenzo, Piero the Unfortunate, Pope Alexander VI, Pope Leo X, and Cosimo I). Less of an emphasis is placed on the women who were sent off as brides to France (Catherine and company) or the degenerate late Medicis (Cosimo III and Gian Gastone).
I may recommend this book as a good starting place to learn about the Medicis, or Paul Strathern’s. The two are very similar. I do caution that both books require a basic understanding of the chronology of the renaissance and aren’t beginner friendly.
The Thirteenth Tribe
By Arthur Koestler
Published in 1976
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Thirteenth Tribe is a fascinating history about the Jewish Khazar Khaganate which existed from roughly 800 AD until 1000 AD, with some remnants surviving into the 1200s. The book covers the fascinating, and incredibly confusing, origins of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
The Khazar Khaganate was a Turkish tribe that lived in the northern regions of modern Azerbaijan and Georgia and controlled parts of modern day Russia and Ukraine as well. The Khazar Khaganate was located along the Silk Road, facilitating trade inbetween the Muslim Persians and the Christian Byzantines. This caused a serious problem when the Muslims and Christian Byzantines went to war. In order to remain neutral, the Khazars converted to Judaism.
Only a tiny percentage of the Khazar population ever converted to Judaisim, and those that did tended to adopt the heretical Karaite sect of Judaism. Most of the Khazars who converted were tied to the royal family. Roughly a century after their conversion to Judaism, the Khazar Khaganate collapsed, forcing the minority of converted Jews to immigrate into Eastern Europe.
Modern genetic studies have partially confirmed the Khazar hypothesis. It is now known that roughly 10% of Ashkenazi Jewish males have Y chromosomes associated with Khazar ancestry.
The history of the Khazar Khaganate is fascinating because it paints a different story of Jews during the Middle Ages. Pop culture depicts Jews as oppressed creatures living in the shadow of a stronger and tyrannical medieval society. The existence of the Khazar Khaganate’s steppe warriors challenges this view by showing another, more martial, side of medieval Judaism.
Some anti-semites have attempted to use the Khazar Khaganate to challenge the Jewish claim to Israel. They make the case that if Jews come from a Turkish tribe then they have no place in the holy land. Anyone who uses medieval history to make nationalist or anti-nationalist claims in modern times fundamentally misunderstands the chaotic, decentralized nature of the middle ages. Israel was continuously inhabited by some Jews from the time of the first diaspora, through the Islamic conquest, the crusades, the colonial era, and into the present.
The anti-semetic use of the Khazar Khaganate has caused some Jewish extremists to overreact, altogether labeling anyone who studies the Khazars as anti-semetic because they assume that the only reason to study the Khazars is to challenge the existence of the state of Israel. This is ironic, because the Khazars should instead be celebrated as another fascinating tile in the mosaic that makes up Jewish history.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish history.
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
By Paul Strathern
Published in January 2009
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Paul Strathern writes very clear, concise, and non-wordy survey histories about Italian history. After reading Venice: A New History, I was very curious to see what else he had.
The Medici is an excellent narrative history that follows the emergence of the family from the mists of history, their rise to power as bankers, Cosimo’s coup, his brilliant grandson Lorenzo, their temporary downfall, subsequent re-emergence as Popes, royal marriages in France and Germany, and finally their final obese and mentally ill scions.
The history of the Medici family is a fascinating rabbit hole which lays the foundations for many modern trends including banking, absolute monarchy, and the modern state.
Strathern’s writing style is clear and engaging. My main reproach is that I wish he spent significantly more time explaining how Medici banking worked. I was hoping to learn more about the details of the financial transactions that they engaged in.
This is a decent book, but I think I’ll read more about the Medici’s to find a definitive recommendation on the topic.
City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
By Roger Crowley
Published in January 2012
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
My low score might be simply because I’m tired of reading about medieval Venice. I recently finished two other great books about the Serene Republic, and by comparison this one fell flat.
The information was identical, but somehow I found that the writing was too flowery. Instead of focusing on clarity, the author focused on semi-poetic descriptions. I made it past the end of the fourth crusade, which was described prosaically in all of its horrible detail. Afterwards, the chapters describing Venice’s domination of the Agean are also pretty interesting.
This book probably doesn’t deserve a 2/5; and I’d be open to revisiting Crowley’s other books. But for now, it might just be a question of exhaustion. Compared to all of the other great books I’ve read lately, it falls flat.
Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Published in November 2012
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Antifragile is more than the name of this book. It is a word that describes a new and necessary concept, and since reading the book, I cannot help but find ways to use it in day to day conversation.
Antifragile describes a system that gains from chaos. It is distinct from fragile - a system that breaks when in contact with chaos as well as robust - a system that persists through chaos.
Imagine that you are shipping whiskey. There are three ways you could do it. First, you could ship it in glass bottles. Glass breaks easily. Using glass would be fragile. Alternatively, you could use metal flasks. The metal will resist shocks, and the condition of the whiskey in the end will be the same. Using metal flasks would be robust. But if you are really smart, you ship the whiskey in wooden barrels. The shaking and stirring causes the whiskey to actually improve in flavor. This method of shipping would be antifragile.
Many systems in nature are antifragile: the human body when exercising; decentralized political systems; the Italian mafia; the tinkers building new machines in their basement; etc… Many others are fragile: corporate pill based medicine; empires; accounting firms; directed scientific research, etc…
Understanding the concept of antifragility is critical to build any durable human system. Whether you are designing a policy, building a business, or planning antifragile, mastering the concept is a must.
To me, many of the ideas were not new. In many ways, the book gave me words I can use to describe my pre-existing worldview. I have been thinking of antifragile systems for years now, and I now finally have good language to express my ideas.
I strongly recommend this book. To everyone. Trying to do anything.
By Paul Strathern
Published in December 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This book is a very vivid history of the lives of key citizens of Venice throughout the city state’s history. It covers the lives of diverse Venetians such as the explorer Marco Polo, the neurotic womanizer Casanova, the mass production musician Vivaldi, or the devious politician Enrico Dandolo.
Each biography is short, to the point, and as action passes as possible. The book is never dreary, always highlighting the fantastic adventures of Venetians throughout history. You get to see the city evolve along with its most prominent figures.
As far as history books go, this is a very fun and fast paced read. I would caution, however, that some parts might be hard to follow without pre-existing historical knowledge. For those who want to go deep into Venetian history, I recommend this as a possible follow up for Thomas Madden’s new history of Venice. Some of the topics will be repeated, but they complement each other well.
Venice: A New History
By Thomas Madden
Published in October 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Venice: A New History is a survey history of the city of Venice from the time of its construction in the wake of the destruction of the Roman empire until the present day. I generally dislike survey histories because I find them to be vague and non-specific, but this book is awesome.
If you want to read a single book to get a basic overview of Venice, this is it. It is neither overly dumbed down nor does it go into pedantic academic detail. The writing style is clear, crisp, and simple - just the way I like it. The detail levels are perfectly balanced - enough detail to make sure that the reader has enough context to understand what is going on without drowing them in distracting information.
There are so many fascinating aspects of Venetian history. Venice starts off as a libertarian commercial paradise, but slowly devolves into a whore ridden police state - the North Korea of the renaissance. The book also covers the less known history of Venice - what happens after the renaissance but before the unification of Italy.
My favorite chapters are the ones describing how, in the 1600s and 1700s, Venice reinvented itself into a city modeled off of a touristic economy. Napoleon's conquest and partial destruction of the city is also interesting. You hear a lot about the renaissance, but never what happens after.
The other chapters that I enjoyed delved into the economics of Venice during its peak. Other strong chapters discuss the evolution of late medieval finance; the mass production of ships at the arsenal and early assembly lines; or ways that Venetians would scam British tourists in the 1700s.
One chapter that also marked me was the one giving context to the 4th crusade. When you study medieval history there is a narrative that you always get: the Venetians destroyed the Byzantine empire because they were assholes. This book tries to explain the Venetian perspective, complete with accounts of negotiations being organized prior to the crusades. I had no idea that the Byzantines had, twenty years earlier, orchestrated an anti-Venetian genocide. The way that the knights bartered with the doge, and the doge claimed he lacked authority to negotiate as a tactic also was really inspiring.
Venice: A New History has endless nuggets of gold contained within it. History books are rarely this good - I recommend it as the definitive guide to Venetian history.
Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World
By Adam LeBor
Published in June 2014
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Tower of Basel is a short history of the Bank for International Settlements. I had always heard of the bank, and had some vague idea that it was important, but was otherwise ignorant of it. This book has been eye opening.
The Bank for International Settlements was founded in the aftermath of WW1 allied and German bankers to help Germany pay back its war debt. The bank marked itself as “neutral” and “apolitical.” However, the repayment of Germany’s debt was inherently political - and would lead to the rise of the third reich.
Later, during the 1930s, the bank was taken over by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Allied industrialists used it to semi-legally channel money into the Germany military industrial complex. The bank is credited with having allowed American and British investors in making lucrative investments into the arms factories that would produce weapons to kill their compatriots a decade later.
After WW2, BIS was seen as useless. That is when bankers rebranded it to go from a semi-fascistic bank used to fund nazism into a bank that handled currency transactions in between central banks. BIS has maintained this role since the end of WW2.
The bankers at BIS have always had an extreme globalist ideology. Whether they were nazis who supported unifying Europe’s currency for Hitler, or leftists creating the Euro thirty years later the fundamental ideas remain unchanged. Now, BIS is talking about creating a one world currency.
As a side note I also enjoyed it because I live in Switzerland. Many of the events in the book - like those in Lausanne - take place in areas that I regularly visit. I’ve even been in one of the hotels mentioned.
This is an absolutely fantastic book. It sheds light into the global central banking system like no others do. I strongly recommend it to anyone trying to grasp how central banking works.
The New Rules of War
By Sean McFate
Published in January 2019
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The New Rules of War is a fascinating exploration into 4th generation warfare and the end of the Westphalian system. This book explains why America will fall before the end of the 21st century.
It explains why the US and Western powers have lost every major military engagement since WW2 such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The main argument is that the US fights wars conventionally (WW2 style) when all wars, due to technology, are now fought unconventionally (Iraq style).
He bemoans the US purchase of expensive aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and tanks as wasteful. Instead, he advocates leaning out and cleaning up the military, focusing on private contractors, psychological operations, and special forces.
The future of warfare will not be dominated by states. Instead, it will be age of mercenaries, terrorists, and megacorporations. Do not be worried - these wars will be less chaotic, more controlled, and more cost effective.
The author knows what he is talking about: he is both a former soldier as well as an academic researcher. He doesn’t write from the perspective of someone who has never left a dusty desk; instead demonstrating clear field experience.
The writing can get a little bit repetitive. He really wants to drill the problems into the head of the military, which can be stubborn. This makes it slightly repetitive at times for us civilians who aren’t biased in the way that his target audience is.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how warfare is changing. It is excellent for beginners, but likely boring for intermediate and advanced military historians.
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