Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood, Michael White
Like White’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I’ll confess I picked this up mostly because Machiavelli is an important character in the game Assassin’s Creed 2 (and at one point he even makes a reference to The Prince in the game). I haven’t read The Prince, but I had a certain idea of the content. White’s key point in this biography is that despite the aura of disreputable scheming around Machiavelli, that wasn’t his intent in writing The Prince, and he served Florence well and faithfully. Mostly, he was a shrewd strategist and diplomat, and an observer of human nature, who doesn’t seem — at least in White’s account of it — to have got the respect he deserved.
White’s biographies all seem to be pretty well sourced, and they’re very readable. I’d recommend them.
The Hammer and the Cross, Robert Ferguson
If you’re looking for a dynamic and riveting history of the Vikings, this isn’t really it — Neil Oliver’s book might be more your speed. It’s quite slow and thorough, covering a lot of ground in terms of both time and space. For me, that wasn’t a bad thing, since I know my medieval history tolerably well and my Viking history better. A better knowledge of geography might have served me well, but I suck at that.
From all I know, this is well researched and accurate, and there’s a ton of extra reading and footnoting to back that up. If you’re looking for something to bring the Vikings to life, no, but if you’re looking for something by someone who seems to know everything about the period he can find to cram into a book, then that’s definitely this book.
Drawing Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis, Kathryn Lougheed
Or mostly the making of it, since unmaking it has been so far beyond human powers.
If you think of TB as something that happens to other people, in other countries, or even only in the past, then this is a necessary corrective. It highlights the disease burden borne in particular countries (usually where poverty and poor nutrition support it), among particular groups (refugees finding it hard to access care; homeless people in London) and in people already suffering reduced immune function (people who have HIV). TB is still very much with us, and there are already strains out there which are completely drug resistant.
Let me say that again: we’re so far from beating TB that there are completely drug resistant strains out there which can only be treated with a Hail Mary approach of toxic antibiotics like kanamycin or surgical intervention. And there have only been two new anti-TB agents in recent years, and neither of them are ready to deploy on a large scale. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even have sufficient global supply of the current first line drugs.
I appreciated Lougheed’s focus on mentioning the fact that this drug resistance isn’t due to people not complying with their medication schedules. Antibiotic resistance naturally arises in TB, even if a patient is observed 24/7 and every pill or shot is administered on a precise timeline. We can’t just put this down to people being careless, though there’s no doubt that in some cases that could cause antibiotic resistance.
If you’re a fan of UKIP, you won’t like Lougheed’s commentary on racism, etc; she shares my views, as far as I can tell from this book, but she’s very vocal in giving little respect to that area of the public. I found her likeable for it, but your mileage will no doubt vary.
Anyway, all in all, this is an interesting, timely, not too technical history of the science of TB, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener even for someone relatively aware of the state of things. I found it very readable and illuminating.
The Button Box, Lynn Knight
The subtitle kind of sums this book up: “The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore”. It covers the wars, the periods when women went to work and when they were turned back out of the work force, suffragettes and suffragists, the New Look… It’s not my usual area of interest, but Lynn Knight makes this about more than fashion — it’s about how fashion highlighted the preoccupations of women and what it said about their status and expectations.
I found it really restful and, yes, interesting — I love the concept of rummaging through a family button box to look at past garments and fashions. It makes me wish I’d dug through some of my grandmother’s stuff sometimes. I think even my mother has some odd buttons and so on lying around; in a way, ready-made clothes being such a thing has cut my generation (and somewhat the previous generation) off from the continuity with family we used to have through rag bags and button boxes. That’s not all a bad thing, but I loved the anecdotes from Knight about playing shop with the buttons for payment, the buttons that reminded her of home made clothes…
If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, you’ll probably love this. If you’re a fan of microhistory, again, it’s probably up your street. And if you need something restful to remind you of a childhood playing with buttons and doll houses, well, it might also be for you.
Hengeworld, Mike Pitts
For the most part, Hengeworld is a thoughtful discussion of the various discoveries about henge sites, mostly in the Wessex area. It looks at dating and old digs, piecing together as accurate a story as possible and trying to put together the context of Stonehenge and the places like it. I’m pretty happy that, at least in 2000ish when this was written, Pitts was saying nothing controversial — his work aligns with that of Francis Pryor (notably not referenced, though) and Mike Parker Pearson.
One note, though — where Pitts discusses people protesting the dig at Seahenge, he insists that the protestors didn’t understand what was going on. Surely, he seems to think, if they’d understood the circle was going to be destroyed anyway by the sea, if they’d understood the importance to archaeology, they wouldn’t have had anything to protest about. But that ignores the link people still have with the prehistoric monuments like Seahenge. It was built of timber, so surely our ancestors knew it would rot in the end. It was built on the shore, for goodness’ sake — a liminal, impermanent place if there ever was one. They meant for Seahenge to be taken by the sea, perhaps. It may even have been important to them. Who is Mike Pitts, or any archaeologist, to claim that’s not worth respecting?
I share the curiosity about megaliths and henges — obviously. I’ve read this book. But sometimes I do wonder why we privilege our understanding of them over the symbolism they had for ancient peoples. On the one hand, of course those people are gone and won’t know what’s happening. On the other… maybe rescuing Seahenge is not a sign of respect for the past, but a desecration. However important you think the archaeology is, I think there should be room to consider that and accept that some people may feel it trumps the opportunity for radiocarbon dating, and freezing the remains of Seahenge in time in a climate controlled environment. That is not, after all, what Seahenge was built for.
When Pitts concludes that different eras have made what they will of Stonehenge and the other megalithic and megadendritic structures out there, he’s closest to recognising their real power, I think.
Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek
Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:
“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”
And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:
“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”
There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:
“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”
This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.
The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.
The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere
I picked this up mostly because Guy de la Bedoyere worked on Time Team, which I loved as a kid and now watch sometimes with my wife. He was their Roman expert, or one of them, so that’s a pretty good endorsement (and it amused me to notice a blurb from Tony Robinson on the front!). The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t really that much material for the “real people” of Roman Britain, because there’s no rich written record to refer to. There’s scraps — an inscription here, a letter there, an eloquent tomb — but often de la Bedoyere is pressed to make more than a paragraph or two of the material he has. It’s about real people, alright, but there’s so little we know about them, that doesn’t necessarily add to what we know.
Which is not to say it’s a bad book; it’s solidly based on the archaeology and records we have, and there are some fascinating glimpses at life in Roman Britain. But it’s less a full picture than a glance through a door that’s open just a crack.
Mind you, I’m sure de la Bedoyere feels closer to the people he writes about than we do, reading about it — he’s examined the evidence first hand, perhaps worked on the excavations. This might be more satisfying if you’re in that position, too!
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
The Pinks, Chris Enss
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 1st July 2017
I didn’t know much about the Pinkerton agency, other than that they were detectives. I didn’t know they protected President Lincoln and involved themselves in the events of the Civil War — that they worked as spies for the Union. I had no idea about the theatrical and psychological methods they used… and I didn’t know that Pinkerton employed women, before women were regularly employed, and considered them important and indispensable operatives. This book delves into all of that by presenting little case histories of various capers the women were involved in. I say capers because some of them really do seem like that.
It’s a little odd that the blurb mentions Kate Warne, the first woman employed by Pinkerton’s, in the context of an affair with Allan Pinkerton. Unless I somehow skipped a chapter, there’s no such evidence presented in this book. Likewise, it’s a little odd — and sexist — that the men are referred to by their surnames, while women are referred to either by their full names or, more commonly, by their first names. It seems disrespectful to treat them differently than the men.
Otherwise, this is very readable and undoubtedly interesting. I kind of want a whole stack of novels about Kate Warne, now.
Byzantium, Judith Herrin
This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. Sometimes this results somewhat in insulting the general reader’s intelligence, and yet at other times she gets deep into minutiae rather than covering the stuff that might really interest people — like the role of mutilation (instead of assassination) in political takeovers. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly. And yes, that’s a very brief explanation, but it’s more than Herrin did.
Byzantium is a fascinating empire, and we do owe more to it than we often believe. Rome dominates our thoughts, both in religion and in history — especially in Britain, of course, since we were ruled by Romans and then our entire state religion is based on a reaction to Roman Catholicism. But Byzantium has much to teach us about the European past as well.
Herrin definitely has a bias toward Constantinople and their way of worshipping and… just about everything. At times, an apparent hostility to Roman Catholicism breaks through, which is rather odd from a scholar (and yet, might have made the book more interesting if it were a bit more apparent — you have to choose which way to go, and make it clear).
Interesting read, but does get a bit bogged down in details and repetitive.