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The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)
The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)
by C. A. Bayly
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.17

2.0 out of 5 stars A difficult birth, 30 Jun. 2015
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Global history has become hugely fashionable in the last decade or so, and alongside Pomeranz's Great Divergence, Bayly's The Birth of the Modern World is one of its leading titles. Essentially, the book argues that the modern world was not, contrary to established wisdom, of purely Western creation. Or, more precisely, Bayly argues that the rise of modernity was a multi-centred affair until the very last decade of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, when Western domination became more marked. My problem, though, is not so much with the argument as with the way it is made. The book is turgid, laboured, and I have had to force myself to read until the end. It also packs surprisingly little depth in its near five hundred pages. Indeed, many of the examples chosen to illustrate Bayly's point, taken from a global range, are often deployed very superficially and with little regard for their historical complexity, so that the book tends to read like an extended treatise.

The second, more fundamental issue is that Bayly studiously refrains, at the beginning, to explain what he means by modernity. I suppose the intention was to let a pattern emerge and the question answer itself, but in practice this fails to happen, and the book tends to read like a very broad survey or compendium of surveys. Modernity emerges as a laundry list of features: organised commerce, industrialisation, urbanisation, powerful states featuring strong administrations, 'world' religions with missionary movements, and even certain ideas and artistic trends. But this is to describe, not to explain, and in the process the contributions of non-Western societies gets lost, a matter of me-too-ism rather than original role.

And this is also the third problem with The Birth of the Modern World, namely that in its eagerness to raise awareness of non-Western trends, it tends to mix anything and everything. The radical Enlightenment as contributing factor to the French revolution and what followed, for example, are compared to mandarin contestation in eighteenth-century Qing China. The question, though, is to what extent this literati contestation was anything very new, and conversely what influence it actually had over the Qing collapse of the mid-nineteenth century. Just as and perhaps more interesting points might have been made about Chinese freedom of expression and political contestation as antecedents to their European, Enlightenment versions, but this is lost in the effort to make the Qing events count more. A related problem, finally, is that inevitably on such a broad topic, the narrative is drawn from secondary sources. This makes for a very derivative, and often insufficiently discerning analysis, for example on economic matters. The best parts of The Birth of the Modern World remain those that deal with Asia and Africa or the Middle East, and for this material I am giving the book two stars. The book is dry, theoretical, and derivative, though, and it is an absolute struggle to read.


Decoded
Decoded
by Mai Jia
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Fairly cryptic, 27 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: Decoded (Paperback)
Mai Jai's debut novel Decoded may be many things, but it is not a spy novel. To some extent it is historical, but it really is a half-psychological, half-philosophical tale. If you expect some sort of cliff-hanger, some mystery in which it is revealed, in a stunning reversal at the end, that such and such character was always a behind-the-scenes puppeteer, you will be disappointed. The story is that of Rong Jinzhwen, a neglected youth from a family of brilliant academics, whose mathematical genius is discovered in his adolescence. Jinzhwen does not necessarily have the personality of a recluse, but circumstances contrive to make him so, and for his fragility to match the depth of his mental abilities. Part of the book is about code-breaking, but the it is essentially written in the style of a biography. At the same time, it is a meditation on genius and the nature and meaning of exceptionality.

Mai Jai's idiosyncratic style contributes to making the novel hard to place. It not so much that the narrative is interrupted with interviews of some of the protagonists, drawing the plot away from the format of a simple thriller and more towards the fictional biography it aims to be. The narrator's voice simply tends to jump around, from one topic to another, from action to general considerations at the oddest moments, from realistic to entirely off-beat scenes, like a cameraman changing lenses mid-way through shooting. Perhaps it is the effect of translation, perhaps Mai Jai aimed to mark his novel as specifically Chinese, an impression that also arises from its very orthodox political ambience. Decoded is an interesting work, but all this nevertheless makes for something of a curate's egg, and at the same time I would only give it a weak four stars.


Gai-Jin: The Third Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
Gai-Jin: The Third Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Sequel to Shogun, 22 May 2015
Clavell is good, but it's hard to match Shogun, the original in his Asian Saga series. While Gai-Jin is not a direct sequel to either Tai Pan or Shogun whether in plot or in its central characters, I highly recommend that you try these two other books in the series before you read Gai-Jin, as enough is said in this third book that it will spoil the first two for you.

Anyway, while Shogun had to do with struggle over the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Gai-Jin takes place 250 years later, as Japan is confronted with serious encroachment and the threat of colonisation by the European powers, in the mid-nineteenth century. As usual there is a wide caste of characters and multiple sub-plots, all entwined to make the story the page-turner that it is. The successor to the Tai Pan of the preceding book, Malcom Struan, finds his life threatened after a Samurai attack, while at the same time he is being pursued by the ruling beauty of the foreign community at Yokohama, the penniless French adventuress Angelique. The community itself is a crab's nest of intrigue among its various foreign consuls and spies. Meanwhile, on the Japanese side, the Tokyo-based shogunate is at threat both from a resurgent emperor and an independent, terroristic Samurai movement supported by some of Japan's most powerful local lords, with all the back-stabbing, and indeed front-stabbing, that this can be expected to entail.

The book, finally, has a quite good historical basis, and many of its characters as well as situations are based on people and events that actually existed or took place. In this sense, it is stronger as a historical novel than Tai Pan, which is sometimes quite approximative. The central theme remains Japan's refusal to engage with outsiders, though, and on that count, while his purpose serves the plot well, Clavell probably exaggerates the Japanese xenophobia - actually, in the pre-Meiji era, key Japanese thinkers and political actors seem to have admired European civilisation, especially British, and the book is probably not to be taken at face value as to contemporary mores.


The Oxford History of the French Revolution
The Oxford History of the French Revolution
by William Doyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Reference on the French revolution, 22 May 2015
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William Doyle’s History of the French Revolution it the best in the genre because it is the most honest and is well written, comprehensive, and informed by up-to-date research. On a subject that, two hundred years later and counting, remains surprisingly controversial – or perhaps not surprisingly, as it has to do with the nature of France itself – no one matches Doyle’s precise, noncommittal voice. The book, moreover, stretches from the last decade of the ancien régime and into the consulate, providing valuable context to the central revolutionary phase of 1789-99. While it is detailed enough to do justice to the rich and varied sequence of events and cast of significant characters, it indulges in no jargon and is easy to follow. It is far superior, finally, to crowd-pleasers such as Schama and to the semi-hagiographies produced by many French historians. For students and for the general reader alike, this is the book to read.

As additional background, whether for students or for the general reader interested in the twists and turns of the historiography on the topic, I recommend François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution (1981) and TCW Blanning’s The Rise and Fall of the French Revolution (1996).


Munich the Price of Peace
Munich the Price of Peace
by Telford Taylor
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The reference on Munich, 27 April 2015
At 1,000 pages or so, it's hard to pretend that Telford Taylor's Munich: The Price of Peace is for the general public. If you are looking for a narrative account, with focus on Chamberlain and British diplomacy, then that is David Faber's Munich, The 1938 Appeasement Crisis. If you are a student or want something more in-depth and covering better French and German politics, however, Taylor's book is the reference on the diplomacy of Munich. The book includes, moreover, a detailed prelude on 1930s international politics, so that it also functions as an excellent overview of that decade. Its information on the diplomacy leading to Munich is extremely detailed, and there is some - though there could have been more - military information. My only reproach, indeed, is that the book sticks very closely to diplomatic reporting and bargaining, and Taylor might have taken more of an outside view on the military balance.

Taylor, an American lawyer, was a Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials before becoming the author of several history books, most of them dealing with WWII. He had fought in the war, and he went on to become an opponent of both McCarthyism and the Vietnam war. Since the book was published in 1979, it could not factor in later research, in particular the important Hugh Ragsdale The Soviets, the Munich crisis, and the coming of World War II.


Exile
Exile
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars High-wire act, 1 April 2015
This review is from: Exile (Kindle Edition)
Richard North Patterson is one of the best thriller writers currently active, and Exile is quite a feat. I was sceptical that it is possible to write a novel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not sink into the swamp, yet Patterson does it. As in all mysteries, it is best to leave the plot untouched in the interest of avoiding spoilers... but the novel has a Palestinian lady accused of having committed a grave act of terrorism on US soil that further happens to involve a high-level Israeli figure, and she is defended by a Jewish ex-lover and fellow Harvard alumnus. The background material, which is extensive, left me very nervous during the first chapters, but Patterson is balanced as to the conflict itself, or as balanced as it is possible for an American writer, even of liberal bent, to be. The pace is otherwise fast and the plot excellent, Patterson showing his mastery of the legal background in the final chapters. A gripping item in the genre by an emerging master.


The Sound Of Waves
The Sound Of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sea breeze of a tale, 26 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Sound Of Waves (Paperback)
Mishima's best is no-doubt the sea of fertility tetralogy, but The Sound of Waves is a pleasant short novel, or long novella, less gloomy and wistfully, even uplifting, somewhat like After the Banquet but in an entirely different setting. This has Shinji, an uneducated young fisherman on an island off the coast of Japan pursue the daughter of the community headsman, the overbearing owner of several vessels. The girl, Hatsue, a former pearl diver, is well disposed, but her father is in no mood to condone anything so newfangled as a love match. Yet tradition also involves respect for courage and character, virtues in which Shinji is not lacking, and perhaps all is not as hopeless as it looked. Nor does The Sound of Waves, in spite of first appearances, present the picture of a traditional Japan stuck in its ways. On the contrary, set in the 1950s, it has its characters do such things as listen to the radio and take bus trips to Tokyo. Indeed, subtly, what Mishima brings to light is the picture of a country that is fast changing yet retaining, at least in pockets such as the island of Utajima, its traditional values. Beautifully written, this novel will serve as a good introduction to the author, or alternatively as a fine piece for anyone who has read his more major works.


Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On Japanese resilience, 23 Mar. 2015
David Pilling was the Financial Times' Japanese correspondent for several years in the noughties, and his book takes stock of the last two decades of change, especially economic and political, in the country. Japan, indeed, presents a confusing picture to the outside observer: stuck economically since its 1980s bubble burst, it remains a rich and modern country, and apparently incapable of reform politically, it has been rocked by catastrophes such as the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion that have nevertheless mobilised civil society in entirely new ways. It is Pilling's conclusion, indeed, that Japan as a nation is far more resilient than recent events appear to show, and that even economically it has been more successful, even through the 'lost decades', than is superficially thought. The book meanwhile also takes stock of Japanese self-perceptions, relations between the sexes, and the nation's complicated relationship with China and other Asian countries. It also contains numerous first-hand anecdotes, especially about the Tsunami, its after-effects, and the rebuilding effort, as well as drawing from interviews with politicians, high-level civil servants, writers, artists, and even the granddaughter of admiral Tojo.

Pilling's book should appeal to anyone with an interest in or relationship with Japan. I read it while travelling there as a tourist and found it fascinating. It is not a history and is best read with some prior knowledge of Japan's past, but it is targeted at the general reader - as indeed Pilling's newspaper reporting was. While it tends to be positive and was clearly written by a fan of the country, it is also nuanced, even critical at times. If you want the Koizumi era decoded, or would like the full story on Fukishima, or are looking for an update on post-bubble Japan, this is the book to read.


In a Country of Mothers
In a Country of Mothers
by A. M. Homes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Struggling mothers, 5 Mar. 2015
Jody has just begun on a job in cinema and left home. Ever conscious that she was an adopted child, however, she has adjustment problems and, after moving to New York, she visits a therapist. As it turns out, her new shrink Claire abandoned a little girl of hers, through an illegal adoption process, years before as a teenager. Claire now has a family: a husband and two boys, but she starts to obsess over Jody, convinced she is her lost daughter. And as Jody, unaware of Claire's secret, gets drawn ever more tightly into her therapist's private circle, things start to become distinctly unhealthy. A.M Homes begins well from this interesting premise, but her novel tends to become drawn out as the plot progresses. The characterisation is reasonably good, moreover, but Jody's dependence on Claire could have been better substantiated. Indeed, in its last pages, the book tends to fail on the show-don't-tell criteria, and to lack conviction. The result is that the ending, otherwise clever, falls somewhat flat. In a Country of Mothers, from an intriguing exploration of mother-daughter relationships in modern America, ends up flailing and flagging somewhat, making the novel's second half unworthy of the first.


The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Tartt's best, 3 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Goldfinch (Paperback)
Obviously this book has been hugely hyped, but it is good, and better in my opinion than the also well known Secret History. Indeed, The Goldfinch is more moving and has more psychological veracity to it than Tartt's earlier works. It also involves high stakes for its protagonist, and works better on the whole. Theo Decker has been the victim of a bomb attack in a New York museum where he has lost his mother. With his father missing, and an alcoholic and a crook anyway, he finds himself having to fend on his own. Complicating things further, Theo has seized a precious miniature painting, The Goldfinch by the seventeenth-century Dutch master Fabritius (a real painting by an actual painter), in the daze of his being hit by the explosion. The picture, a tantalising object he cannot bring himself to give up, brings an excitement to Theo's life without which he couldn't bear to carry on, but as stolen art it also constantly threatens him with catastrophe.

Tartt is good at characterisation, and this has a wide cast of protagonists ranging from the Manhattan social elite to the edges of the petty crime world. The novel deftly moves between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, and it weaves between coming-of-age story and thriller. The book is well written, and it is good on the art and antiquities world without being pedantic. At 800+ pages, then, it is quickly read.


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