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Martin White (London, UK)

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The Origins of France: Clovis to the Capetians 500-1000 (New Studies in Medieval History)
The Origins of France: Clovis to the Capetians 500-1000 (New Studies in Medieval History)
by Edward James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Gaul became France, 15 Jan. 2010
This is a really interesting account of what, for me, has always been an intriguing if somewhat mysterious subject. Instead of doing a straight narrative of the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchies, James first looks at the various constituent peoples and communities of Gaul/France and then goes on to explore the processes by which political authority was established or unravelled at various stages in what is in fact a very long period. The continuities from Roman times are substantial and mark off the provincial differences between south and north, Frankish ways of doing things only gradually becoming embedded in the south.


The Mediterranean in the Ancient World
The Mediterranean in the Ancient World
by Fernand Braudel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long look at the ancient Mediterranean, 15 Jan. 2010
Braudel is regarded as one of the giants of history writing of recent times, having developed the notion of 'longue duree', the aeons-long span of history that provides the base for all the transitory activities we normally take for history. Leader of the Annales school of historiography, he is especially famous for his work on the Mediterranean area in the reign of Philip II.

This book, in contrast, applies the approach to the ancient world but, unsurprisingly, actually starts with the Palaeolithic. The book, written about 1970, was not published in Braudel's lifetime because the publisher (and instigator) died. It finally appeared in 1998. It contains a huge amount of fascinating detail that is well-organised and accompanied by perceptive and telling generalisations. If you want something a bit different from straight narrative history, then read this.


The Balkans (UNIVERSAL HISTORY)
The Balkans (UNIVERSAL HISTORY)
by Mark Mazower
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How it was in the Balkans, 14 Jan. 2010
A straightforward but fascinating history that stresses the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith nature of the Ottoman polity and the damage wrought by the Romantic invention of nationality and ethnicity from the 19th century on. Should be compulsory reading for every Croat, Serb, Montenegrin, Albanian, Greek, Macedonian, Kosovar, Bulgar and Turk, not to mention the rest of the world which viewed the events in the Balkans in the 1990s in reductionist psycho-ethnic or geographical terms.


In an Antique Land
In an Antique Land
by Amitav Ghosh
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evocative, well researched, a wonderful read, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: In an Antique Land (Paperback)
To categorise this as a travel book is misleading. In fact it is anthropology and history with two main settings: rural Egypt in relatively modern times and a web of commercial and cultural interactions from the Mediterranean to the western coast of India uncovered by a medieval Jewish manuscript found amongst the detritus of an old synagogue in Cairo. It's an account of social change, of the loss of a cosmopolitan and even peaceful way of transacting things across seas and cultures to an alien brutality, the bellicose European way of doing things, and the resultant foreclosure of mutual understanding, as exhibited in small Egyptian communities whose interpretation of the world has thereby become so different. Greatly evocative, incredibly researched, a wonderful read.


Thermopylae
Thermopylae
by Paul Cartledge
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Greco-Persian head-to-head, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Thermopylae (Paperback)
The subtitle 'The Battle that Changed the World' is both naff and wrong but this is another fascinating book from Cartledge, this time on the Spartans and the Greco-Persian head-to-head of the 5th century BCE. Interesting on Achaemenid Persia and on the extraordinary culture that was Sparta. Sensible on what Thermopylae has meant and how it has been used without falling into the epistemological trap of denying its significance except in those terms. How could a historian do otherwise?


Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain
by Charles Frazier
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars An American odyssey, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Cold Mountain (Paperback)
Set in the American Civil War, the story of a soldier who walks away from the war and embarks on an odyssey, full of both gruesome and heartwarming incident, back to the person he loves while she, not knowing where he is, ekes out a difficult existence from the land. A sense of resoluteness and goodness in a country that is dislocated economically and morally. Very well written, with an eye for detailing the wonders of nature. The film was good too but couldn't manage the scope of the book.


Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
by John Gray
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Going with the flow, 12 Jan. 2010
Gray's 'False Dawn' was a scintillating attack on the ideological hubris of free market capitalism and the westernizing experiment of communism, the damage caused by both, and how these grandiose blueprints for humanity stem from the principles of the Enlightenment. The castigation continues in 'Straw Dogs' where he queries the modern assumed distinction between humans and other animals. For him, hunter-gatherers have provided both the most successful and obviously the most congenial of the phases of human development.

His views are really biologically reductionist and almost quietist in their insistence that attempts to improve things are doomed to failure and predicated on the false assumption of humanity's uniqueness. He prefers, I think, to go with the flow, to contemplate. A philosophy of passivity, then, contradictory because it's arrived at through critique yet in effect would like all critique, rationality, even morality, to disappear.


Super-Cannes
Super-Cannes
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pathology the essential ingredient of contemporary life, 11 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)
Although Ballard has been described, and highly esteemed, as a science fiction writer, this book may technically be so described but is temporally and in terms of subject matter so close to home that it's not pigeonholeable in any particular genre. It is also a thriller. Its setting is a high-tec business park where the performance of corporate top executives, in the context of a paradise that provides simply everything one could want, can be sustained only by indulging in nefarious and violent activities. Indulgence in pathology is the only way of staying sane. In its perceptive identification of contemporary trends and their implications, this book reminds me of Huxley's 'Brave New World.' Highly recommended.


Wassily Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction
Wassily Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction
by Hartwig Fischer
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Colour and form, 11 Jan. 2010
The book of the excellent exhibition at Tate Modern. Kandinsky's road to the non-figurative is one of a depiction of landscape gradually reducing its reliance on what we see as being there and developing into a use of vaguer forms and muddier outlines until figures become difficult to discern, sometimes symbolic, and eventually disappear altogether as markers of an objective reality. Colours and their gradations and juxtapositions are extraordinary throughout. Colour and form eventually combine in abstract renderings of some kind of universal essence about which Kandinsky theorised but about which probably the less said the better. A fairly useful text; wonderful reproductions of the paintings.


An Acre of Barren Ground
An Acre of Barren Ground
by Jeremy Gavron
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A combination of documentary and imagination, 11 Jan. 2010
This rather odd book is a kind of history of the Brick Lane area in East London, or it could be a novel. It is a collection of incidents, imaginative and factual, that have occurred there, at whatever period in history. Some of them don't seem to have any relationship to any of the others and it is difficult to identify any commonality. As you would expect, migration is a strong element. It is cumulatively quite effective - I like the doing of history through the combination of the documentary with what may have been people's subjective experiences. What's missing is any kind of analysis or general account, a contextualisation of the events which, to be fair, would probably make the book what it is not.


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