Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn

genghis khan.jpgFirst off, I enjoyed Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius when I read it a few years ago.  He occasionally felt a bit bias towards his own opinions, and there was quite a lot of tangential material; but it was a full and detailed biography of the man.  This 2015 profile of Genghis Khan keeps the details but drops some of the more out there tangents.

We go right from Genghis/Temujin’s birth on the steppes of Mongolian, beyond his death, to the division of his empire into four on the death of his grandson Kublai Khan.  McLynn feels authoritative and familiar with the material; in all aspects – military, social, political.  The Mongols and Genghis can be a complex topic.  There is a contrast between the nomadic warriors and the ease they settle into the use of Chinese style bureaucracy; between the paranoid cruelty of Genghis (even early on) and his religious tolerance.  McLynn does catch this, but often he is telling rather than showing.

At times though, I got lost in the sheer scale and speed of Mongol expansion, along with the horrifying death toll.  A more focused approach may have presented these with a bit more skill, rather than the epic one volume history given here.  McLynn doesn’t get bogged down in too much ethical judgement of the conquest, but as a reader it is hard not to have to pause at points.

Ultimately, I don’t have the reference points for Genghis and the history of the East that I do for Marcus Aurelius and Rome.  This was quite a dry read throughout much of the book, and I found myself having to struggle against the temptation to skim read.  By the time the Mongols were pushing into Europe I was a little more comfortable, but it isn’t as easy introduction to the Mongols.

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Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.

Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes

Valens has a poor reputation as a Roman Emperor. Given that he presided over the disaster at Adrianople, this is understandable. This book goes some way to suggesting that although he could never be classed as a great emperor, he was a competent man who momentarily lost control.

Book CoverThe book starts at the last days of Julian’s reign and runs through the rule of Valentian I and his brother Valens.  Throughout most of the book Hughes takes a methodical, almost annalistic, approach.  The military campaigns and major events of each year are briefly described.  This is quite a dry style, but it does pay off when the author begins to draw conclusions later in the book.  The battle of Adrianople, and the campaign around it, is covered in more detail in the last few chapters.

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Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses by David Santiuste

Book coverFirst off, “and the Wars of the Roses” isn’t a subtitle used lightly. This 2010 release from Pen & Sword focuses very much on the military history side of things. It doesn’t function as a complete biography – his later reign is only skimmed through, and the details of his often extravagant lifestyle don’t really feature. It does however make a case for Edward being the most successful general of any English monarch.

His record is blotted by the fact that most of his campaigns were fought against his compatriots in civil wars and rebellions, rather than the French like Henry V (they were, of course, a much more acceptable target), but the achievements do stand up. He never lost a battle, and was equally willing and able to delegate command, negotiate, or retreat if necessary. When he did finally invade France it was a bit of a wash out, with the promised support from Burgandy disappearing – but his eventual peace treaty was a respectable end, and showed a level headed response to these problems.

After a brief introduction to the setting and the upbringing of noble children, the author gives a run through of the Wars of the Roses, with all its characters and machinations. Better tellings of the full story could be found elsewhere; here it is just average (but also necessary to understand Edward’s role). For the battles however, it is much more successful. Aspects of the preparation, tactics, and the aftermath are covered and paint a lively picture of the 15th century campaigns. Edward’s personality too does feel rounded, it may not elaborate but we get enough to understand his more playful or personal side. Despite the focus on the military and on Edward, other characters like Warwick “the Kingmaker” (his role much downplayed here) or Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, do come across well.

In all, it’s worth a read. The military side is very well written and there is enough insight to the politics, personalities and everyday life to keep the rest interesting – I just wish it had been a bit more complete in places.

The Severans by Michael Grant

Book coverA short post here on a short book.  Michael Grant was a classicist with a reputation for writing short and popular, but comprehensive, books on Rome and this volume from 1996 is no exception.  He condenses the fifty event filled years of the Severan dynasty (and the brief reign of Macrinus) into under ninety pages.  The structure of the book is thematic rather than narrative, and chapters on finance, literature and art give perspectives often forgotten in more story-driven popular history.

However, the brevity of the book can be an issue.  Chapters on the law, the army and the infamous Severan women could perhaps do with more elaboration and often seem to be expecting the reader to be working from an already advanced position. Grant clearly has some interesting things to say, but he doesn’t do himself justice at this breakneck pace.  Some of the climactic events of the period are also brushed past in a somewhat underwhelming way, making the narrative chapters seem a bit uneven.

It’s certainly meant to be read as part of a wider reading list and used as a launching off point for further exploration – and in that it does a decent job.  On its own, however, it does nothing but whet the appetite and occasionally make me wish I’d be a little more prepared before jumping in.

Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn

Book CoverMarcus Aurelius has a reputation as a great emperor, if not one of the best. He studied philosophy, ruled temperately and was fairly successful in his wars (mostly fought in self defence). He was the last of the “five good emperors”, with the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. However things were not that simple, and both Marcus and the Empire were not without flaws (some of them pretty major). This 2009 biography by Frank McLynn attempts to paint a more complete portrait of Marcus and his legacy.

This is a therefore a book with a lot of side tracks and dead ends.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to really weigh up a man like Marcus Aurelius we need that background.  He was a “good” emperor just as the Empire started to collapse; he was a philosopher whose meditations can read like an inconsistent self-help book; he was a wise leader or a terrible judge of character. The detail goes towards building a better picture of who Marcus Aurelius was (or at least who Frank McLynn thinks he was).

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Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.

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Post 60: Emperors of Rome podcast

LogoAfter Mike Duncan’s superb History of Rome, do we really need another podcast about Romans?  Obviously more than a few people think so, by the way that this series, by La Trobe University in Australia has rocketed up the iTunes charts. In fairness, the show itself has a different format and tone – it’s much more biographical in focus and is presented as an interview between the host, Matt Smith, and a lecturer at the university, Dr Rhiannon Evans. Pieces of the interviews are then put together to tell the story and discuss any interesting points that crop up.

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Post 15: Alciabiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor

Written by P.J Rhodes and published by Pen & Sword in 2011, this book is possibly the only one in recent years to act as a biography of Alciabiades (as the subtitle says, a famous Athenian playboy, general and traitor). If that’s exactly what you’re looking for you probably don’t have many options in terms of popular history, but for most people it would act to give more detail on particular aspects of the Peloponnesian War, life in ancient Athens and to shine more light one of the fascinating characters of ancient Greek history. Rhodes’ academic qualifications are fantastic (formerly Professor of Ancient History and the resident Greek specialist at Durham Uni, now an Emeritus Professor) but how well can he transfer this to a general audience?

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Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman

This “biography” of John Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders is a great read. Released by Faber & Faber in 2005, the book presents itself as the story of an English mercenary who made his name fighting first in the Hundred Years War, and then in medieval Italy. Actual biographical details of the famous mercenary may be short on the ground but it turns out these aren’t really necessary, Saunders gives a wonderful description of the mercenary life among the warring states of Fourteenth Century Italy.

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