Karl Marx by Francis Wheen

51b23recqel._sx318_bo1204203200_I liked this biography of Marx (from about twenty year ago, but hardly out of date). Rather pleasantly, it doesn’t feel particularly ideologically driven. Wheen is more interested in Marx as a human and conjures up both his boisterous, argumentative side and his (surprisingly) gentle side. Family life plays a huge role here, and it helps to bring out the personal edge to his professional interactions. The politics and philosophy is covered too, but it’s not heavy going – there’s also an eye on keeping the book readable.

There have been more than a few previous Marx biographies (not that I’ve read them) and Wheen seems particularly pleased when he gets a change to offer a different interpretation of some aspect of the story. The two that stand out are Frederick Demuth, who Wheen places as Marx’s illegitimate son, and the interactions between Marx and Charles Darwin. Despite his faults, it’s hard to read the book and not end up with sympathy for Marx and his personal struggles (although the Telegraph seems to have).


A People’s History of the French Revolution by Eric Hazan

9781781689844-3c88cfdcd2d6570b0b5c7e04f0b94626Where my previous read on the French Revolution (the original one) was a somewhat conservative choice (Simon Schama) – this one (by Verso books) was squarely on the left wing radical side of things. And by a Frenchman as well. That means that a little more knowledge may be expected going in – references to historians like Michelet, Jaures and Lefevbre are scattered throughout. Actually that’s rather the point of the book – dredging up real quotations from the revolutionary press (Marat, Hebert) and speeches by the politicians (Robespierre in particular) to challenge the standard interpretations and narratives.

The copy and paste approach doesn’t make for the smoothest read, but it does make its point well – the chosen quotes making Robespierre and even Marat seen much less extreme than their reputations. However, the obvious lack of balance detracts from this.  It’s difficult to get sucked into Hazan’s argument without being familiar with the arguments from the other side.

It also feels a shame (and not necessarily Hazan’s fault) that we don’t actually hear much from the “people” here, the closest we get is a bit of focus on the sans-culotte leadership.  The english title of the book is definitely less accurate than the more mundane French title Une histoire de la Révolution française

I did enjoy the book despite the flaws, but it isn’t the best of introductions to the period.

Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toíbín

51awdagmeml._sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve been to Barcelona once, when I was a teenager. It was interesting enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I know it particularly well or (to be honest) really loved it. I found parts of it a little sleazy and I’ve been discouraged in going back by the rather aggressive over-tourism debate.  Irish novelist Colm Toíbín lived in Barcelona in the late seventies, and moved back to write this book in the late eighties (then updated it a decade later). Parts of it encourage me to take another look at the city, but others fall flat.

I wasn’t fond of Toíbín’s personal memories (that sounds awful – I’m glad he had a good time!). Living in the city soon after Franco’s death and experiencing the revival of the Catalan language must have been quite an experience, but I didn’t feel I learned much by hearing about his clubbing hotspots and the places he picks as crime hot-spots are quite possible outdated. Some travel writing tends to a sort of generic blend of multiple eras through different visits and revisions of the book. Not so good for a guide book, but very atmospheric. This was very specific to location, time and the experience of the writer, leaving me with the question: why should I care about that specific time and location, and whether a Catalan writer (or longer term resident) would be a more illuminating guide.

For me, the bits that work are generic history – chapters on Gaudis, Dali, Picasso, Pau Casals and so many others that have lived, worked and been inspired by the city and the culture. The rise of Catalan nationalism and the resurgence of the language and culture doesn’t always make for a sympathetic read and Toíbín does feel balanced – showing the repression the city suffered (under Franco, and before) but remaining critical. There’s plenty of references for further reading and plenty of avenues to explore (quite literally for visitors to the city). Toíbín’s writing is good: clear, crisp and nice to read. It’s a decent, but perhaps dated, account of a city that obviously captured the author for a period.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

51c8precakl._sx323_bo1204203200_I’m not a mathematician – I liked the subject at school, but ended up heading down the path of Physics (and in an experimentalist direction).  I have though heard a few things about Paul Erdős – the prodigious number of papers, the lack of a non-mathematical social life, Erdős numbers.  After reading this book, I know more about him but it’s generally in the same vein: his odd language of slang terms (god = “the supreme fascist”, children = “epsilons”), various anecdotes from friends and colleagues.  Actually he does come across as very social (in his awkward way), and with a hefty supply of witticisms to liven things up – quite different from Paul Dirac, to pick another eccentric from the list of biographies I’ve read recently.

The book does feel rather stretched out, setting the scene for his work with lengthy diversions on other mathematicians (GH Hardy, Ronald Graham, Srinivasa Ramanujan).  These are interesting enough, but it’s not exactly a heavyweight character study.  This is probably for the best.  Along with the fact that the mathematics is kept to a minimum (enough to explain the general scope of the various topics, but not enough to feel like work), it feels like a book that I would have enjoyed back at school. It might even have encouraged me to set off in a more mathematical direction – luckily I’m a bit past that now.

Becoming Roman by Greg Woolf

The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

179679The last time I read a book that focused on Roman (or pre-Roman) Gaul, it was the rather disappointing and very confused The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.  This book, thankfully, isn’t that one.  Woolf’s book from 1998 is an much more academic argument against the concept of “Romanization”, that happens to give a pretty decent description of the changes in Gaul as it settled into the Roman Empire.

In brief, Woolf argues for a more open interpretation of Roman identity.  It was possible to be Roman and have humanitas, and also to have a provincial identity.  There were new towns, there Roman colonists, but Roman additions came bit by bit – a temple here, some road layout there.  The religion altered but retained some local character (within acceptable Roman limits).  Local tastes changed, but so did local produce and the trends did not mirror Italian trends.

It’s not always an easy read, there’s as much pottery in here as you’d expect.  More than that though, it’s nuance and subtlety that requires some attention – the balance difference between urban and rural (Woolf might suggest that this is sometimes overstated), the difference between the busy Mediterranean coast and the marginal Breton peninsula.  There aren’t many sweeping statements here.  There also isn’t all that much theory on identity or empire, which is fine with me.  I enjoyed it, definitely on the academic side but not inaccessible for a non-specialist with an interest.

The Holy Roman Empire by Peter H Wilson

Subtitled A Thousand Years of Europe’s History, this impressive but difficult work does pack a millennium and quite a bit of detail into seven hundred or so pages.  When I was younger, dazzled by Medieval Total War, I quite fancied the idea of a single volume history of the HRE.  Later I realized that that could be a quite hefty prospect (like the dry and extensive The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel), but then this book came out – and superficially seemed to be promising that.  Hopes were raised by the easy going cover, blurb and subtitle.

51fcnp9kqvl._sx322_bo1204203200_They were then scattered by the restaurant-tasting-menu style table of contents.  Single word chapter titles like Association and Governance for chapters spanning seventy pages.  No sub-divisions listed here.  And indeed some of the chapters are heavy going – particularly the opening ones on ideology and the relationship between church and state.  Sorting the history thematically means that each chapter crosses back and forth between that thousand years of history in a baffling way unless you are familiar with the events and characters of the empire.

Some later chapters do flow more chronologically, but even they rely on a lot of pre-existing knowledge.  Major events are brushed over in a few words, new people appear without introductions.  The ending tacks on a short bit on the legacy that verges between the interesting (changing views amid the rise of 19th century nationalism) and the unfortunately outdated (lessons to be learned in EU comparisons).  To give these topics the attention needed would really be a whole other book, so it feels like an inessential finale.

To say some positives about it – Wilson clearly has a great command of the material, and doesn’t lower his level for the reader.  By taking the focus away from the great men of history and from material culture, he really gets to deal with things on the level of ideas, justice, identity.  He gets to deal with mis-conceptions about the weakness of the empire or the push and pull of (de)centralisation.  It’s fascinating, in a very involved sort of way

PS. It’s page 2 before Wilson uses the Voltaire quote, if you were wondering (as I was).

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

2166088In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office).  I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium.  John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version).  Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.

This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time.  The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams.  The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time.  It is all in there though.  That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.

Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama.  He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics.  This buries it among the rest of the information.  His chronology keeps track of the broader story better.  Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.

Russian Rulers Podcast bibliography

I do like a bibliography, and Mark Schauss’ Russian Rulers podcast has one on its website.  So I thought I’d copy it over.  It’s maybe not a complete bibliography, more of a suggested started point for someone inspired by the show to read more.

I have none of these books, although I am aware of a few of the authors.  Orlando Figes was always on my wishlist, but I’ve heard a few strange things about him – secret amazon review accounts and libel cases – ah well, I’m sure his books still stand up.

  • A History of Russia – Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark D Steinberg
  • A Brief History of Russia – Michael Kort
  • Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia – Orlando Figes
  • Czars – James R Duffy and Vincent L Ricci
  • Russia: A History – Gregory Freeze
  • Peter The Great – Robert Massie
  • Tolstoy – A.N Wilson
  • Tolstoy – Henri Troyat
  • Pushkin – T.J Binyon
  • Pushkin – Henri Troyat


Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 13)

When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire its importance was sensibly felt and its loss sincerely lamented.  The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island, provided on every side with convenient harbours; the temperature of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, alike adapted for the production of corn or of vines; the valuable minerals with which it abounded; its rich pastures covered with innumerable flocks, and its woods free with wild beasts or venomous serpents.  Above all, they regretted the large amount of the revenue of Britain, whilst they confessed that such a province well deserved to become the seat of an independent monarchy.

In this passage, Gibbon seems to get a bit carried away with some of the panegyrics written after the recovery of Britain from the rebellion of Carausius.  He occasionally has a tendency to get a little bit patriotic and play up his home in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative.

It’s a good thing everyone has stopped over-estimating the importance of Britain!