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One Hit Wonderland
One Hit Wonderland
by Tony Hawks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Simon Cowell and a hat-shaped cake, 24 Nov 2014
This review is from: One Hit Wonderland (Paperback)
Tony Hawks is an English humourist who is perhaps best known for making bizarre bets. His first, in 1997, was that he could hitch hiking around Ireland in a month, bringing an admittedly-small fridge. This was followed by a bet that he could beat every member of the Moldovan team at tennis, not the Moldovan tennis team but the Moldovan soccer team.
This volume has Hawks - who reached No.5 in the Uk charts back in the eighties as part of Morris Minor and the Majors - trying to have a hit somewhere, anywhere within 2 years.
Having tried and failed from Nashville to the Netherlands via the Sudan he was on the verge of giving up until a pre-fame Simon Cowell told him he was too ugly to make it. Cowell didn't agree to eat his hat if Hawks succeeded but he did agree to eat a hat-shaped cake. That set Hawks off to Albania with two knights of the realm, one of whom had had his last hit before Hawks had been born.
Did Hawks have a hit?
Did Cowell eat a hat?
While I preferred Round Ireland with a Fridge, One Hit is a pleasant if unexceptional read.


Diderot (Past Masters)
Diderot (Past Masters)
by Peter France
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Encyclopaedic - But Very Informative, 19 Nov 2014
This review is from: Diderot (Past Masters) (Paperback)
This book is party of the Oxford University Presses “Past Master” that predated its “Very Short Introduction” series and fulfilled the same sort of function.
Prior to reading this book all I knew about Diderot was that he was the principal editor of and chief contributor to the Encyclopédie and I was aware of the apparently apocryphal tale of his encounter with Euler. (The latter doesn’t merit a mention in this book). I didn’t know, for instance, that this Jesuit-educated arch-atheist had a brother who was a priest.
The author, wisely in my opinion, concentrates less on his contributions to the Encyclopédie and more on his other wide-ranging works and on Diderot’s not entirely satisfactory search for his own holy trinity, the truth, the good and the beautiful.
At the start of the book the author opines that, if Diderot was a master, then he was a master without a masterpiece. At the end of his clear and, as far as I can tell, fair assessment of his subject’s works he concludes that even Diderot wasn’t a past master he was a supremely interesting one.


The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Michael Howard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Thankfully, Unlike the War Itself, 30 Oct 2014
Thankfully, unlike the war itself this guide to the First World War is both short and achieves its aims.
It is part of the OUP’s VSI series and anyone familiar with the series should know what to expect.
It begins with an overview of the each of the Great (and not-so-great) European Powers in 1914, their strengths and weaknesses, the hopes and fears. The second chapter covers the outbreak of the war itself.
These are followed by year-by-year chapters on the progress – or lack thereof – of the war together with a chapter on the USA’s entry into the war.
The concluding chapter covers the aftermath of the war and the successes and failures of the various peace treaties.
On the back of the book Hew Strachan, who knows a thing or two about World War One, describes it as “a masterpiece of concision”. This is the third book I’ve read by Michael Howard, each of them short. One, which I would recommend, is “War in European History” and the other is “Clausewitz” another in this series, under the earlier Past Masters heading. Each work is clear – or as clear as one can be about Clausewitz – and concise. Some VSI authors write in what I consider to be an overly academic style for a general audience but I can assure readers that Sir Michael doesn’t fall into that category.
Three minor quibbles. The “front maps” could have been aligned in portrait fashion which would have allowed for more detail as the war tended to be fought East-West rather than North-South. The one slip of the pen I noticed was on page 115 where East Prussia is described as Germany’s “historic heartland”. It was Prussia’s heartland, not Germany’s. Finally he endorses Keynes’ view of Versailles – which is a valid, indeed perhaps the majority, position to hold – but fails to at least mention that there is an alternate view that Keynes got it wrong.
Why four stars for such an excellent book? I’m extremely reluctant to give five stars unless I regard a book as exceptional. Similarly I’d be reluctant to give a one star review. I think there are far too many fives and ones on Amazon. To date I’ve made only 1 five star and no one star review. I start assuming a three and adjust accordingly after I’ve read the book. (Would that there was some way of deleting “reviews” by people who clearly haven’t read the book in question). It would be better if Amazon allowed marks out of ten in which case I’d give this a nine.


The Wisdom of the Buddha (New Horizons)
The Wisdom of the Buddha (New Horizons)
by Jean Boisselier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.93

3.0 out of 5 stars More Winsome Than Wise, 16 Oct 2014
For the third time in a row I find myself reviewing a book with a somewhat misleading title. As it is a translation of a work titled “La sagesse du Bouddha” it appears to be misleading in two languages. In my opinion “Legends of the Buddha” would have been a more apt title for the book as written.
After a good introductory chapter on the India of the Buddha’s time (and there is ongoing debate as to when that time was with up to a century leeway on the dates of his lifetime) we are told that, “The life of the historical Buddha is indissociable from legend”. Thereafter instead of concentrating on the teachings or wisdom of the Buddha the author gives us a legend-and-god-and-goddess-rich biography of him before a concluding chapter on developments in Buddhism in the centuries immediately after the Buddha’s death.
As is standard with these Thames and Hudson translation from the French publishers Gallimard the main text is followed by a Documents sections and this “From the Buddha to Buddhism” is somewhat more wisdom than legend orientated.
This is followed by a useful Glossary and a Chronology.
Again as is standard with these works the book is lavishly illustrated.
As well as sharing this standard strength from this series it shares a standard weakness. As its maps are not drawn for this specific publication but are rather reproductions from other works they are not particularly helpful in that they show some places not named in the text and leave out some that are included in it.


Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Steven Grosby
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Again, Not Quite What It Says On the Tin, 25 Sep 2014
This is one of the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series in which various experts provide a brief introduction to a given topic complete with references and a further reading list.
I read this book immediately after reading Ernest Gellner’s “Nationalism”, published posthumously in 1997. Both are of roughly similar length. Gellner’s book is far narrower in scope, dealing exclusively – apart from some interests comments on Muslim fundamentalism – with European nationalism of the last two centuries, but also contains deeper insights. Given his brief Grosby has to cover more ground in less depth.
Professor Grosby – whom I was not surprised to see is a professor of religion given the wide range of religious references in this book – provides a broad survey of the topic both in terms of time (going back to Genesis, Herodotus etc) and space (covering not just European nationalism but drawing examples from Sri Lanka, Japan etc).
I titled my review of Gellner’s book “Not Quite What It Says On the Tin” because it dealt with only modern European nationalism and I’m titling this review “Again, Not Quite What It Says On the Tin” because while Grosby deals with the question of what is a nation and of what gives rise to nationalist feelings, and does so very well, he doesn’t – as other reviewers have pointed out before me – devote a lot of time to nationalism, which is after all the tile of the book. Had the book been titled something like “What gives rise to Nationalism” I would have given it another star but again it’s not quite what it says on the tin.


Nationalism
Nationalism
by Ernest Gellner
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite What It Says On the Tin, 25 Sep 2014
This review is from: Nationalism (Hardcover)
I held off writing this review until I read another book on the same topic (Nationalism, A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby) so I could compare and contrast the two having read them back-to-back. I’m glad I did so as this lead me to re-evaluation my assessment of Gellner’s book.
I had previously read Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book. I found that a difficult - due to its dense, highly-abstract arguments – but ultimately rewarding read. Nationalism proved to be a far easier though less rewarding one.
Gellner, a Czech Jew who fled to Britain as a child in 1939, was not a fan of nationalism, seeing it as a cause of much suffering e.g. ethnic cleaning. But he was a realist who accepted that it isn’t something that can be wished away.
The reason I have titled my review “Not Quite What It Says on the Tin” is that the book is not about nationalism but – apart from a brief but very insightful, indeed prophetic, look at the Islamic world and the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism over Arab nationalism – about nationalism in Europe during the last two centuries. Indeed, it is a central contention of Gellner that nationalism is the result of Industrial Revolution.
He compares and contrasts the Congress of Vienna (1815), where no attention was paid to issues of nationality, to the Treaty of Versailles (1919), where it was a major issue.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution people lived in inegalitarian, hierarchical societies where everyone knew his place. You died in the class you were born into, in the village you were born in, in the church to which you belonged. After the IR more and more people lived in cities where there was the possibility of social mobility where the old certainties were uprooted. A new glue was needed to hold people together. Regimes obtained legitimacy both by creating economic growth and by making people feel part of a people.
The book is well written and his arguments are easy to follow.
Why only three stars? I would have given it four had I not read Grosby’s book before writing this review.
Grosby traces the existence of nationalism back through some of our earliest written documents and looks at the topic on a more global scale; hence the title of my review. Had Gellner entitled his book something like “Modern European Nationalism” I’d have given it a fourth star. But it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin.


Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers. How Agriculture Really Began (Darwinism Today)
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers. How Agriculture Really Began (Darwinism Today)
by Colin Tudge
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Food for Thought, 17 Sep 2014
This is one of a series of very short – I would guess of approximately 15,000 words each – books produced in the late 1990’s under the group title of Darwinism Today.
I had previously read and enjoyed the author’s The Day Before Yesterday: Five Million Years of Human History (also published as The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact).
In this work, subtitled How Agriculture Really Began, Tudge deals with the evolution of agriculture in its various forms (horticulture, arable farming and animal husbandry). He also explains how Australian aborigines managed the land by “firestick farming”.
One of the ideas that he posits is the humans “did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it…” I believe this idea is now widely accepted. The early farmers had to work a lot harder than their hunting ancestors to survive. But, there were a lot more of them and, once you go a certain distance down the road to farming, you find it’s a one-way street. There are too many mouths to feed and there is not enough game left to revert to the hunting lifestyle.
His explanation for the Neolithic Revolution – caused by increased pressure on resources after sea-levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age – is also widely accepted.
His novel idea – at least it was novel to me – is the “hobby” farming began long before the Neolithic Revolution of c. 10,000 years ago, perhaps as far back as the late Palaeolithic 40,000 years ago (think cave art). “Hobby” farmers while still remaining hunters and gatherers would encourage favoured plants and animals and discourage unflavoured ones. For instance they might plant seeds or shoots of a favoured fruit-bearing plant.
One topic that he does not discuss but that might have provided a useful parallel is the evolution of the dog from the wolf. Humans and canines may have gradually entered into a symbiotic relationship where they both modified their behaviour to their mutual advantage. Some wolves that were less afraid of and less aggressive towards humans would have hung around hunters’ camps scavenging off our leftovers. Humans wise enough to leave well enough alone by letting them do so would, over time, acquire a best friend with a superlative sense of smell who would regard the humans as their pack-leader, help them hunt, and provided an alarm system still in use today (“Cave Canem” as the mosaic says in Pompeii).
Tudge further speculates that it may have been proto-farming the gave Cro Magnons the edge over hunting-only Neanderthals in that our ancestors may have had something else to fall back on when game was scarce. The Neanderthals, like the bandits in The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, lose out to the farmers who produce a bigger crop of children.
Proto-farming may also help explain the Pleistocene Overkill. Knowing they had other resources to fall back on, men have gone out of their way to kill big game to impress potential mates. I find this argument less convincing, not because I doubt that young men do dangerous things to impress young women, but because I think there are better explanations for the Overkill.
Tudge does not dispute the significance of the Neolithic Revolution but sees it not as the beginning of farming but as the beginning of arable farming, of ploughing and planting and ever larger numbers of people living by the sweat of their brows.
Some of his work is slightly dated e.g. he places the evolution of modern humans at c.100,000 years ago – whereas the current figure is c. 195,000 years ago – and the book predates the exceptionally important archaeological discoveries at Göbekli Tepe, the existence of which would, in my opinion, further strengthen his central thesis.
The writing style is clear and concise.
While slightly dated this book is like an energy bar that packs a lot into a little.


Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
by David Walsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Cancer of the Spirit, 28 Aug 2014
Perhaps more than any other journalist David Walsh pursued the investigation to uncover evidence that Lance Armstrong was cheating by taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Before his cancer treatment Armstrong had competed in the Tour de France four times, finishing 36th once and withdrawing the other three times. When he came back from his treatment to lead it in 1999 – in the first of an unparalleled seven successive wins of the Tour - supposedly drug-free Walsh regarded this as “all about as logical as the Tour being led by a lobster on a bike. A lobster complete with helmet and a moving backstory about a last-minute escape from a pot of boiling water.”
Such a view wasn’t entirely popular, especially as it was directed as a man whose story was an inspiration to millions. One letter writer to Walsh’s newspaper wrote that “Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them.” The writer was half-right. There was a cancer of the spirit but not in the spirits of those who queried the integrity of the sport and of many of its stars but a cancer in the spirit of those who cheated and – to my mind – more so in the ranks of the officials and administrators who facilitated them. (When Armstrong failed a test in ’99 he was allowed to present a back-dated doctor’s cert to allow the pretence that he wasn’t taking a banned substance but rather had been using an approved ointment).
In journalistic style Walsh recounts “the case for the prosecution” as it were and the story of those brave people who stuck their heads above the parapet to tell the truth.
Some reviews have criticized Walsh for obsessing with Armstrong rather than tackling the wider topic of doping in cycling. I think this is unfair. One person or a small group of people can only do so much and if you can expose the one cyclist whose name was known to the average non-cycling fan this is far more effective in highlighting the problem than exposing a larger number of people whose names mean nothing to the average person in the street.
Another criticism is that the latter part of the book has a different feel to what went before and may have been rushed to cash in on the story. I think there is some truth in this criticism but, if anyone was entitled to cash in, whom more so than David Walsh?


A History of the World
A History of the World
by Andrew Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More than Somewhat Marred, 1 Aug 2014
This review is from: A History of the World (Paperback)
This is the book of an eight one hour BBC series written and presented by a senior political journalist. He is a not a historian and, quite frankly, it shows. Mr Marr has presented other mini-series dealing with more recent British history which I have enjoyed but I believe that in this work he has over-reached himself.
In covering such a vast subject I would hope the presenter would cover the important topics e.g. the birth of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, the main religions, the advances in science and technology, exploration, political thought, etc. rather than the story of this or that king or queen. At the same time a geographical and civilizational balance should be struck.
Mr Marr manages to achieve some of this but he could have done a lot better. A lot of his narrative is taken up with the stories of good and bad men and (a few) women whereas I prefer a history with more technical detail.
The writing style is clear and easy to read if occasional marred by an error that a fact-checker could have eliminated (e.g. on pg.135 we're told that after Cannae Hannibal was urged to march south - that should read north. On page 199 we're told that Chaucer celebrated the astrolabe in print. It's a wonder he didn't celebrate the time machine he must have had to bring him forward to the invention of the printing press!).
As this book has received a lot of two-sentence, five-star reviews, I'll concentrate on two major negative criticisms.

In its coverage of the history of Islam I have come to expect the BBC to use kid gloves while accentuating the positive and this book and the series are no exceptions.
Quite rightly, The Golden Age of Islam is covered and as the main part of my first main criticism I've chosen a few passages from pages 194 to 202 to show where I think Mr Marr has fallen down badly.
Mr Marr tends to jump around the centuries at times but I think it's clear that the following passage relates to the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages and not to the High Middle Ages. (At least I hope not).
In comparing Al-Andalus to (Latin) Christendom he writes of Western Christians that

"They could not accurately tell the time of day, and struggled along with a defective, slipping calendar...The shape of the world outside Europe and the Near East was a mystery; but it was probably flat, and if you travelled too far, you would fall off. The Abbasids, by contrast, prided themselves on their...hard science, in a world...whose circumference they measured." (pg.195)

Western Christians - like everyone else on the planet - of their day couldn't accurately tell the time of day. We can, thanks to clocks with a mechanical escapement. An invention of those Western Christians - probably monks wanting to know the correct time to say Matins (Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines, ding, ding, dong...) - sometime around 1300 and, while Western Europe is replete with churches and town halls complete with medieval clocks I've never seen a minaret with one.
Their Julian calendar - which they had inherited from the Romans - was defective and slipping and some - such as Mr Marr's fellow Briton Bede (d.735) - knew it. Their year averaged 365.25 days long. Our current Gregorian calendar - named after the pope who oversaw its introduction - averages 365.2425 days. So they were out by 18 hours a century.
Though Marr is comparing the Islamic world to that of Latin Christendom he doesn't mention the Islamic calendar. The one used by the people who prided themselves on their hard science. It is either 354 or 355 days long. This is not exactly useful for farming purposes so the Islamic world tended to use the old Egyptian calendar for agricultural purposes. At 365 days to the year without any leap years it was more inaccurate than the Julian one.
The Islamic calendar runs from the Hijra which took place in 622 AD by the Christian calendar. Since then the earth has gone round the sun about 1392 times and so the Christian year is 2014 i.e. 622 + 1392. However by the Islamic calendar we are in the year of the Hijra 1435.
Throughout the modern world people of all faiths and none use the Gregorian calendar. It's not perfect (it's out by about a day every seven thousand seven hundred years). It wasn't designed to be perfect. It was designed to be practical and to have an inbuilt corrective mechanism.
In the Gregorian calendar there are 146,097 days every 400 years. It is accurate to within just under an hour and a quarter over that period.
In the defective, slipping Julian calendar the Christians inherited there are 146,100 days every 400 years. The defect is 3 days every 400 years.
In the Egyptian calendar used for practical purposes by the Abbasids there are 146,000 days every 400 years. The defect is 97 days every 400 years.
In the Islamic calendar there are less than 142,000 days every 400 years. The defect is more than 4,000 days every 400 years.
Who had the more defective, slipping calendar?
I'm confident that a lot of uneducated people back then, Christian and Muslim, believed that the earth was flat just as educated Chinese did c.1600 when the Jesuits arrived to advise them otherwise. But among educated Westerners - there were a few even back then - then in the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, "with...few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat". Or as Stephen Jay Gould put it "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology." If I may go back to Marr's fellow Briton, Bede, he described the Earth as being "...not merely circular like a shield...but...more a ball".
In the TV series we are shown a not very convincing re-enactment of al-Khwarizmi calculating a reasonable approximation of the circumference of the earth. An impressive feat but one managed by Eratosthenes almost a millennium before. In the book we are again told of al-Khwarizmi's undoubted achievements but I would have thought that reference to Ibn al-Haytham, generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic scientists and one of - if not the - founder of the scientific method, would have been worth a mention.
***
"It is hard to crusade against someone and learn from them at the same time." (pg.197)

Having described how the Islamic world sought out knowledge from the Greeks he presumably believes that it is possible to wage jihad while doing so.
***
"Had the rival Muslim world of Al-Andalus not existed, much of this precious knowledge might not have arrived in Europe for centuries to come." (pg.197)

Al-Andalus wouldn't have existed without the Islamic conquests which reduced the West's access to its main source of writing material - papyrus from Egypt - forcing it to rely on far costlier velum, a severe handicap for scholars.
Muslim raiders - like those who sacked Old St. Peter's in 846 - and privateers - who continued taking Christians captive into the 19th century - made travel across the Mediterranean for any scholar seeking precious knowledge a potentially dangerous business.
It's a bit like those people who congratulate the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA and their Loyalist counterparts for their part in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland while ignoring the fact that if the paramilitaries hadn't carried out an unpeaceful process for decades beforehand a peace process wouldn't have been necessary.
***
"Scholars such as...Duns Scotus brought Averroes and therefore Aristotle to a Christian audience...Aquinas absorbed his style of argument and, while disagreeing about aspects of Aristotle, found the Andalusian a vital inspiration...These early Christian Aristotelians encountered just the same kind of resistance from popes and bishops as Averroes and Maimonides from caliphs and imans." (pg.201)

It is in the section dealing with absorption or non-absorption of Aristotle's body of work into medieval Islam and (Latin) Christendom where I think Mr Marr's history falls down very badly. This is a very important topic for the two civilizations reached a fork in the road and one took one path and one the other and that in part is why the West came from behind to pull level and then further and further ahead while the Islamic world lagged and lags further and further behind.
Aquinas was influenced by Averroes - whom he referred to as "the Commentator", just as he referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher" - but he differed significantly from Averroes's Christian followers - who, it should be said in fairness, held views somewhat different from those of Averroes himself. One of Aquinas's works is titled On the Unity of Intellect, against the Averroists.
More importantly Mr Marr gives a misleading impression in the above passage. Yes the early Christian Aristotelians did encounter resistance (though, unlike Averroes, Aquinas was never forced into exile) but - and this is the key point, a point that Mr Marr doesn't make, never mind make clear - Latin Christendom not merely accepted and absorbed Christian Aristotelianism it endorsed it (to the point where Galileo would get in trouble for challenging Aristotelian orthodoxy).
As Peter Watson put it in Ideas: a history of thought and invention from fire to Freud - "Before Aquinas the world had neither meaning nor pattern except in relation to God...In Christianising Aristotle, Aquinas eventually succeeded in Aristotelianising Christianity. A secular way of thinking was introduced into the world, which would eventually change man's understanding for all time."
Avicenna and Averroes did not succeed in Aristotelianising Islam, with consequences that are with us to this day. Ibn Khaldun - to whom Mr Marr makes a passing reference as "another Arab historian", which is a bit like referring to Shakespeare as "another English writer" - wrote The Muqaddimah in 1377. Has the Islamic world made a comparable contribution to the intellectual advancement of humankind since then?
***
A possible insight into Marr's mind-set occurs on page 255 we are told that "the Spanish monarchs ...destroyed the last Muslim foothold in Europe...Granada." Does he not think that the Balkans, most of which was under Ottoman rule in 1492, is part of Europe? Or is it that he is so conditioned to think about the "good" Muslim rule in Europe i.e. in Iberia that he just blotted out the not-so-good rule in the Balkans?
***
I accept that any such work will have to skip over vast amounts of material but the really important points should be covered. Here is my second major criticism.
To my mind a serious omission has to do with his coverage - or lack thereof - of medieval Europe - apart from comparing it unfavourably to medieval Islam. Now in covering world history a presenter/writer has to strike a balance between different times and different regions/civilizations. Given the amount of coverage that the West will have to be given, particularly post-Industrial Revolution plus the coverage that should be given to ancient Greece, the Age of Exploration, the Scientific Revolution, the (re)birth of democracy etc it makes sense to leave coverage of other areas of Western history to the bare minimum to allow time to cover other civilizations.
However I believe that certain things that should have been covered weren't.
If I may quote from The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe,

"Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other...portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries. Since 1500 our civilization has not had to endure any upheaval remotely comparable with the shattering and rebirth which accompanied... the Dark Ages between 400 and 900... therefore, it has not seen any flowering of new ways of life and attitudes as fundamentally novel as those which grew up around the cathedrals and universities, the royal courts and the commercial cities in the centuries between 900 and 1500.
Most Europeans live in towns...which existed in the lifetime of...Aquinas... The modern nation state grew out of the monarchies created by kings such as Philip Augustus of France and John of England. Democratic forms of government are based on the systems of representation and consent evolved in thirteenth-century parliaments. The idea of popular sovereignty emerges first in the writings of a fourteenth-century scholastic, Marsilius of Padua, who knew the communes of contemporary Italy. Our methods of commerce and banking are derived from the practices of the Florentine Peruzzi and Medici. Students work for degrees already awarded in the medieval universities...in courses which have gradually evolved out of those followed in the medieval faculties of arts. Our books of history and our novels are lineal descendants of the works of...Bruni and...Boccaccio. Our troubled sense of the distinction between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of religion and morals derives from the dualism of Aquinas's thirteenth century when popes and universities confronted kings and parliaments and the scholastics struggled to reconcile Aristotle and the Bible."

And from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror,

"While political power centralized during the 12th and 13th centuries, the energies and talents of Europe were gathering in one of civilization's great bursts of development. Stimulated by commerce, a surge took place in art, technology, building, learning, exploration...universities, cities, banking and credit...Those 200 years were the High Middle Ages, a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and treadle loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo travelled to China and...Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established ...when Giotto painted human feeling, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design for human fate...a period when religion was expressed in...the gentle preaching of St. Francis and in the cruelty of the Inquisition, when the Albigensian Crusade ...drenched southern France in blood... while the soaring cathedrals rose arch upon arch, triumphs of creativity, technology, and faith.
They were not built by slave labor. Though limited serfdom existed, the rights of serfs were fixed...and the work of medieval society...was done by its own members."

And what of this does Mr Marr cover? We get told the tale of the tale-teller Marco Polo, a more interesting tale than that of "the mother of machines" or how Aquinas married Aristotle to Catholicism. But not a more important one.


Modern War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Modern War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Richard English
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

2.0 out of 5 stars Hard Pounding, 24 Jun 2014
In general I’m a fan of the OUP’s Very Short Introduction series and have read about a score to date over a range of topics. They usually give a good layman’s guide to the topic at hand. However, like my fellow Dubliner at Waterloo, I found this to be a case of hard pounding.
This author’s style – with its numerous references to authors quoted – was perhaps better suited to writing for an academic audience than to a general one.
A further difficulty is the scope of the topic. The author rightly defines “Modern War” as starting with the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. Before then, at least in the West, you had small, regular armies fighting limited wars where maybe a province changed hands. After then you had conscripted armies fighting increasingly industrialized and industrial-scale wars with more at stake.
The problem for a work such as this is that now you have very messy wars with a smallish regular army on one side and an irregular force on the other or a war with many irregular factions involved and it’s hard to say when it started and when it stopped. There are no signing ceremonies at the end.
The fighting that has taken place in Iraq during WW1, WW2, the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War is different from what’s going on there in recent years and perhaps OUP should have commissioned two books instead of one.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is great emphasis on wars in which the US and/or the UK take part and much space is given to an implied critique – not a bash, a critique – of Bush and Blair. The Chechen Wars aren’t covered and I thought a comparison of Chechnya and Iraq/Afghanistan or of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan versus the West’s involvement there might have been more meaningful than displays of the author’s familiarity with what I believe are usually referred to as “the sources”.
A more telling criticism, to my mind anyway, is that by far the bloodiest war in the last half-century i.e. the war in the Congo doesn’t merit a mention.
In a work suck as this whatever about agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s views one should be entitled to expect solid judgement and accurate facts.
On page 48 we’re told that, in the American Civil War, the South “had less will than did their opponents for the prospect of a long war of appalling attrition”. That might have been news to Lincoln who for much of 1864 thought he would not be re-elected so war weary was the North. Indeed, had Davis not replaced Joe Johnston – who had been using delaying tactics against Sherman – with the hot-headed Bell, Atlanta may not have fallen in time to swing the election to Lincoln and then what would have happened?
Whatever about opinions a work from the OUP should get its facts right.
On page 49, referring to WW1, we’re told “Allied victory followed a successful spring offensive” but the spring offensive in 1918 (21/3-18/7/18) was a German one that, despite gaining ground, was ultimately unsuccessful. The successful Allied offensive began on 8/8/18. Perhaps this was a case where the author didn’t explain himself clearly rather than a case of him getting a basic fact wrong. Nevertheless this is something that should have been picked up before publication.
On page 72 we’re told of Turkish involvement in conflict in the Mediterranean in “the 1930’s and 1940’s”. I know of no such Turkish involvement . Interest yes, involvement no. Turkey sat out WW2.

While the book has some useful quotes I found it too disjointed and unbalance to recommend it.


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