A Brief History of Italy by Jeremy Black

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fbd08a3a2-919b-11e8-a10e-53179592953eWriting a book like this about Italy isn’t an easy job. The country has only officially existed for around one hundred and fifty years, and the debate is still open on how unified it has ever been. Black takes two hundred and sixty pages to rush through pre-history, the middle ages, multiple revolutions, more than a few wars and modern Italian politics.  It’s obviously tough, but he leaves regional events or trends aside and does succeed in painting a general but chaotic picture of the peninsula.  Some bits are better than others – there’s a lot of information to pack in and at times the book feels rather over edited: casually mentioning characters who are only introduced a few pages later, and the occasional garbled sentence.

Things get rather better once he’s past the Romans and early middle ages and into the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.  This is closer to Black’s specialist era, and he does feel more comfortable in both his summarising and his detail.  I liked the build up to modern Italian politics – giving a brief overview of the trends that have led to the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord entering into power together.  Black isn’t afraid to call out cases of corruption, incompetence or dishonesty, but the whole thing feels (to me, anyway) fairly balanced.

The last part of the book looks at the different regions of Italy via travellers through previous centuries.  That feels like a nice curiosity, but one that is neither detailed enough to really engage or modern enough to be a true travel guide.  I liked the idea, but I would rather have had a full two hundred pages of it!  Overall, this is a nice introduction to a varied country – it was never going to be an easy task to do everything justice.  Some bits work better than others, but at its best it is an entertaining and informative read.

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Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale

Subtitled The Secret Heart of Russia’s History

916qf300rjlCatherine Merridale tells the history of Russia through the story of the iconic Moscow citadel, The Kremlin.  Or she tells the history of the fortress itself, and those who inhabited it.  It kind of swings between the two – a grand wide-ranging history, and something smaller and more focused.  I suspect the intention is the later, but it’s not really possible to do that without it becoming something a little more specialist.  I don’t think the general reader (myself included) has the background knowledge of Russia required to stick too closely to the location.  The problem with looking for a more general Russian history here is that at some of the most interesting times (much of Peter The Great’s career, Catherine The Great, today(!)) the action doesn’t really take place there.  But this is really just a problem of expectations – there is still plenty of interest here.

The author doesn’t delve too far into the buildings themselves, we get when they were built and why – but this isn’t a book on art and architecture.  The centre here is the stories and the people of the complex.  The highlight for me is really Napoleon.  The tactical surrender of the city to the French, the devastating fire and the subsequent recovery.  Despite its reasonable length of 400ish pages, it can actually be quite a dense book in places – this may be a cut down version of Russian history but Merridale has done some detailed research.

Most of the Russian histories that I have read have some sort of idea or theme projected through out the book.  In Martin Sixsmith’s volume, for example, it was democracy vs autocracy.  In Red Fortress, it is secrecy and plotting.  The Kremlin makes a beautiful and eerie setting for it.  Even her own experiences of writing and researching seem to be layered in a certain degree – forbidden areas and material abound.

The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

34427005There have been many reasons suggested for the end of the western Roman empire – there’s a famous list of 210 from a German historian that sometimes gets brought up on this (everything from lead in the drinking water and gout to anti-German racism). Here Kyle Harper doesn’t make those kind of sweeping statements, but he does show the impact that environmental factors may have had in the fall of the west and the decline of the east. The ideas can be summed up simply – the expansion of the empire coincided with a period of relatively good climate in the Mediterranean and beyond, before falling into trouble as the climate became harsher. The environmental boost may have led to Rome becoming a more urban and prosperous society than we might have expected given its level of technological development. This in turn placed them in a risky position where infectious disease was concerned.

Firstly, it wasn’t a great place for health in general – Harper shows that the Romans grew to smaller statures than people in the region before or after the empire, never mind elsewhere in more rural societies. It was a rich society, but not necessarily a healthy one. Secondly, it was primed for particular pandemics to strike: the Antonine Plague, a mid-third century plague and finally Justinian’s Plague. The particular diseases and situations led to different impacts – but ultimately the drop in population and the sheer sense of shock for the survivors would be difficult to deal with.

Harper doesn’t rule out the effect of the normal socio-political/great man explanations – in fact he rather skips over the actual fall of the west. He does however point out that these took place in a world defined by the environmental diseases, a world where those people and structures had to be resilient in the face of infectious disease. The idea doesn’t seem that new or complicated (and I don’t know enough of the academic history to say if it is) but Harper explains it well, going into just enough detail on epidemiology and the evidence for historical climate variation.

There are a few flaws with the book, it would really help to have a reasonable knowledge of the later Roman empire – the chronology, the people, the geography. Not too much, but the author doesn’t exactly hang around to explain who Stillicho was. In addition, some attempts in a conclusion to give a warning of our future relationship to the climate don’t read that well. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s not really a conclusion. Finally, the following graph wound me up – a bit too much smoothing on there!

Seriously, it’s a good book – not quite as mind blowing as some reviews might suggest, but meticulously put together, well written (it made me want to read more medicine/biology – and I’ve avoided that since I was 15) and something that will surely be an influential book in the years to come.

Helen Of Troy by Bettany Hughes

81fygycu0xlSubtitled Goddess, Princess, Whore.  This book tries to show the different sides of the infamous Greek beauty Helen of Troy – the figure of worship for many Greeks, the (possible) historical person, and the “bad role model” for women in the eyes of so many writers over the years.  To be honest I was expecting a little more focus on literature, but  the book actually mostly concentrates on archaeological findings both for Helen and the world she would have inhabited.  That turns out to be good thing, as these are the best sections of the book.

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I really liked Bettany Hughes’ book on Socrates, The Hemlock Cup, but this one (the earlier of the two) didn’t impress me in quite the same way.  At times it feels a bit muddled, with occasional travelogue introductions or personal anecdotes that don’t go anywhere or add much to the book.  Hughes’ style of many short chapters means that there’s usually a change of approach coming along shortly, but this can be a bit frustrating at points.  The narrative gets broken up constantly by digressions and details and ends up feeling a little long-winded.

Nevertheless the book is packed with detail about Mycenaean Greece.  About childhood, royal life, palaces, trade, diplomacy, war, religion.  It isn’t quite a biography of the woman herself, but it’s the next thing to it.  The discussion of symbolism feels like a good introduction – not entirely complete but that would probably require a much longer book.  In all, it’s a solid introduction but it could have been better.  The book promises a lot, but only delivers in certain areas.

You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch

9780802777942My wife reads very fancy books about books and manuscripts and language. I read a lot, and do appreciate the idea of these, but this is more my level.  From the Law of Hammarabi to Wikipedia, this looks at reference books – academic text books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, law codes, fun books of miscellany. The headline focus of each chapter is two similarly themed books. There will be some stats – size, weight, number of words – but most of the book is devoted to anecdotes that show how and why these volumes were put together and what their impact was. Between the main chapters there are shorter chapters than go off on a tangent: famous mistakes, changes in format, lists of unusual reference books.

51nhvcdvhhl-_sy368_bo1204203200_My favourite bit of the book was on a less than helpful Polish encyclopedia with the entry “Horse: everyone can see what it is”. On a similar note John Kersey’s New English Dictionary (fork: a well-known instrument; cat: a well-known creature; dog: a beast) impressed. There are many such stories throughout the book. But through the entertainment it becomes clear that writing a reference book is a long, slow, difficult process – even today with larger and larger teams of experts. There is no single right way to do it (though some of the compilers may disagree).

People are moving away from the idea of owning hard copies, but they rarely did anyway – often the full prestigious set was just a opener for more abridged selections. There have been worries in the past about reference books changing behaviour, making us lazier. That debate seems as relevant as ever in a digital world.  Despite the possibility to sink into a chain of wikipedia links in a binge read, maybe online doesn’t suit browsing (and finding things we never knew we wanted to know) quite as nicely as a hard copy.  Whatever the future holds, this is a light and readable take on the history so far.

Amber, Gold & Black by Martyn Cornell

515r29ewvql-_sx317_bo1204203200_I’m not used to reading things on a Kindle, but I had to go there for this one.  Over £60 for a second hand copy on Amazon!  Under a fiver on Kindle.  Meh.  Anyway … Martyn Cornell is a beer writer and blogger of high repute; he’s won multiple awards from The Guild Of British Beer Writers and his blog Zythophile is always a good read.  This book is from 2008, so may not be up to date with all the craft trends, but that works well enough as Cornell can use distance to get a long term view of the rise and fall British beer styles and their history.

For much of the book, Cornell dredges through brewing history.  Or British brewing history anyway.  The back story of bitter/pale ale/india pale ale is murkier than it is often made out to be (everything seemed so much simpler in Pete Brown’s Hops And Glory): Cornell isn’t happy to go along with the myths (though he isn’t against a good story when the opportunity presents, so the book doesn’t get too dry).  He delves through newspapers, advertisements, popular literature and (of course) brewery records and finds plenty of gold.

There are some niche topics – long forgotten herbal beers, honey beers, and heather beer (that had been revived with Williams Brothers’ Fraoch).  Wood aged beers too had made a comeback with Innis & Gunn and an aborted (for tax reasons) Fuller’s aged Golden Pride getting a mention.  I especially liked the chapter on Barley Wines and Old Ales, fitting my personal taste in beer.  A chapter on British Wheat Beer goes in some odd directions, and a chapter on Lager that shines a light on big British brewing and technology.

I have seen a few good criticisms of this book: the lack of Scottish styles (although Scottish brewers do play a prominent role in the Lager chapter); a writing style that isn’t entirely clear – Cornell has plenty to say on the distinction between stout and porter, but I would be hard pushed to summarize it.  There is occasionally a technical focus that feels out of place, leaving the book hanging between something more specialist and something more popular.  Despite these faults, it’s well worth reading for anyone really interested in traditional English beer styles (both obscure and well known).

Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy De La Bedoyere

220px-timeteam2007I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.  Guy De La Bedoyere (an expert on Roman Britain who often featured on archaeological TV show Time Team) has gathered together as many cases as he can of people in Roman Britain – rich/poor, slave/free, native or not.  There often isn’t much to go on, and that means that De La Bedoyere speculates on who that person may have been – the guesswork is based on a solid foundation, what we know of Roman society and so on.  But even with this, there isn’t much to say in the majority of cases.  This means that we get a paragraph on one figure, then a paragraph on another, then a paragraph on another and it starts to feel like a dense wall of half formed information (welcome to archaeology!).

The author structures the book very loosely in a chronological fashion, but this means that the subject changes constantly.  One case might highlight a social concern, the next economic, the next something more military.  I thought Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp managed to structure a similar idea in a much more readable way.  But Britain fundamentally was out of the way, and was different to the East of the empire, or to Italy, or even to Gaul so De La Bedoyere does have less information to go on.  Themes do emerge – the upper class that was always just passing through temporarily, the freedmen and women, the ethnically diverse population of soldiers.

To end this post on a high – some figures do stick in the mind, even on the slightest of information.  Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion who left a rather snippy note complaining of the insolent wrecking his local town.  The potter of Aldgate/Pulborough who the author repeatedly brings up as an example of notably bad craftsmanship.  All we have is a few fragments of badly made pottery, but that is enough to give a sense of something.  And of course the curse tablets from Bath, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”.