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The Italians
The Italians
by John Hooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Super Insightful, 2 April 2016
This review is from: The Italians (Paperback)
An Italian couldn't write this book - that's what makes it so brilliant. As a 13-year inhabitant of the country, John Hooper is able to reveal the workings of a culture from an outsider's perspective. In the same way that a native speaker often doesn't know the grammatical intricacies of his own language, he can also be blind to the peculiarities of his own culture.

I've been living in Italy for 6 months, and it has been incredible to see the keen analysis that Hooper has to share of life on the ground. Every time a chapter was devoured, its information leapt out at me. I picked up on the Italian's deep sense of regional pride, their flexible interpretation of apparently black and white information, I saw titles like 'Dottore' on apartment bells that before had gone unnoticed, I recognised the silent approval of deceptive intelligence (or 'furbo') in a culture where the law is not so much a consideration as what one can get away with.

Hooper keeps a good balance of human experience and facts and figures, complementing it with an engaging writing style which shows a clear admiration for a country full of querks and contradiction. As a culture that likes to talk itself up, Hooper does some interesting myth-busting, breaking through the bluff and perception that so characterizes the Italians in film and grapevine gossip and looking at the facts of what it's like to be part of Italian life today.

If there were to be a criticism, it would be that his chapter on sex wasn't thorough enough. A proverbially difficult issue to collect reliable information on, Hooper deals with the facts and figures from government and industry but doesn't engage with the issue on the ground as he does with the other topics, neglecting to mention anything like facebook or tinder, or even the general number of couples on the street or in restaurants in comparison to other countries.

For all the flaws and improvements that could be made in Italy, this book has made me fall even more in love with a country of haphazard history and diverse culture, which is at its core wholeheartedly human.

The Mask of Dimitrios (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Mask of Dimitrios (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Eric Ambler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Class over Carnage - Spy Novels Way they Should Be Done, 3 Aug. 2015
‘A man’s features, the bone structure and the tissue which covers it, are the product of a biological process; but his face he creates for himself.’

Eric Ambler’s classic novel ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’ has aged as well as any book of its time.

Firmly established as the grandfather of modern spy writing, Ambler’s novel maps the journey of a crime novelist who retraces the steps of the elusive and mysterious Dimitrios, a shape-shifting, opportunistic master-criminal with an extraordinary talent for manipulating the weaknesses of human character. The simple quality of observation and appropriate action to suit each individual’s desires makes Dimitrios a chillingly realistic character, his emotional intelligence his superpower.

‘This book is refreshingly succinct in its prose style, and constantly entertaining in its plot. It makes you wonder why any spy book ever written has had to go over 250 pages (the popular ‘I am Pilgrim’ is 612), it manages to include so much in such so little space.

Ambler often sets the scene with an anecdotal musing on a certain issue, a general opinion lucidly expressed, and then applies it to the setting of his plot, the predicament of his characters, their thoughts and feelings. By this broad perspective, narrowed down to a single situation, Ambler is able to balance axiom with action with a level of sophisticated prose that is difficult to find elsewhere.

The great strength of Ambler is how he manages to utilize the subtleties of human interaction to fuel his plot, creating realistic dialogue and a sense of verisimilitude without the car-chases or tanks. In this sense, his writing brings to mind the fleeing Richard Hannay of ‘The 39 steps’ (film version) releasing a trailer of sheep to stall his pursuer, rather than the oncoming Daniel Craig chasing after parcour-performing drug dealers and smashing his way through temporary plasterboard.

If you are a lover of spy-fiction and appreciate subtlety as much as strength, ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’ is a must-read.

by Alan Forrest
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A teasing introduction, 4 Sept. 2014
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This review is from: Napoleon (Paperback)
This book spans the whole of Napoleon's life: his upbringing on Corsica, his education in France, his rise through the ranks of power in a particularly propitious environment during the French Revolution where he might otherwise have remained a soldier, ostracised from the aristocracy; it covers his rise to consul, his campaigns, his years as Emperor, his defeat in Russia leading to depleted forces, invasion, exile, escape, resurgence and the final fireworks in Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

So many significant events punctuate this period that in trying to cover them all Forrest can only present an introduction or overview rather than a comprehensive study. Evidently there are many topics of interest which can only be broadly covered: Napoleon's propaganda and image-projection, Napoleon's love-life, his battle tactics and his mastery of both the political and military spheres. Forrest analyses the motivations of the Frenchman, giving a measured and understandable viewpoint on why he did what he did, and what his real thoughts were based on his actions rather than the constantly manipulated image which he portrayed to the public, most notably in his memoirs written in exile.

Due to the complicated period of history, I found this a book to be read in chunks rather than bits. It is 4 star because although very interesting it lacks the sparkle and panache of a book which stays with you forever. It feels as if the small, quirky details which make history so exciting are cast aside too often in Forrest's agenda to cover the whole period in so little space.

Ultimately this book does exactly what it says on the tin/the blurb: it gives a realist account of how a seemingly unexceptional boy became the world's greatest general and captured the imagination of a nation in his lifetime and long after his death.

Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz
Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz
by Thomas Harding
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insight, perspective, and human experience: it's unmissable., 25 Aug. 2014
Once in a blue moon you come across a book which you can devour in no time, and consequently leaves you with a feeling of loss and bewilderment over where to find another read as easily enjoyable. 'Hanns and Rudolf' is one of these books.

Two diametrically opposed lives evolving from post WW1 Germany through the Rise of Nazism and the German Reich come full circle to be drawn together in (if perhaps not strictly a 'thriller') a thrilling historical account of WW2 through the eyes of two polar opposite war personalities.

Alternating chapters between Hanns the German Jew (later Nazi-hunter) and Rudolf the paradigmatic German country boy (later Kommandant of Auschwitz), Harding traces each lifetime from the very beginning. The first thing this achieves is the juxtaposition of a German Jew's life vs. the life of a 'normal' German boy in the rise of the Reich. Second, it allows the reader to trace the fabric of both personalities, a vital part of the book. For Rudolf, Harding addresses the constant moral enigma: how was the holocaust carried out? but addresses it from the biographical perspective of the man who personally administered the mass killings, the man who forced himself to look through the peep-hole of the gas chambers to show the face of unflappable conviction to his subordinates. This is an insight into humanness and how Rudolf lost his, retreating behind a wall of glass on the way to conducting one of the most abominable crimes in history. For Hanns, Harding highlights with how a German Jew deals with the intractable circumstances of Nazi Germany. An identical twin with an insatiable hunger for causing havoc and pulling pranks, Hanns develops into a prudent adult with a sense of duty, and it is specifically this which leads him along his extraordinary path to end up in post-war Auschwitz. Third, if the two characters' biographies were not interesting enough in themselves, Harding brings them together in a gripping dénouement, exploring the often overlooked matters of what happened after the war.

This book provided me with a different outlook on Nazi Germany. The concentration camps were not run by villainous killing experts, but men whose botched initiatives at mass murder evolved into a terrifyingly efficient system of genocide. The element of revenge that ought to induce satisfaction towards the book's end is tinged with an awareness of the inability to restore any sense of normality after such an atrocity. The comfort that one might think to find in revenge is therefore, in this book, replaced by settling for justice, since there were no winners in such a sad episode for mankind.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 21, 2015 9:42 PM BST

Puns and Poetry in Lucretius' 'De rerum natura'
Puns and Poetry in Lucretius' 'De rerum natura'
by Jane McIntosh Snyder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £80.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A helpful academic resource, 3 July 2014
Snyder deals with the language specifics of Lucretius thoroughly, illustrating the specificity of the author to pay such close attention to even the letters of the words in his work, epitomizing his world view by treating the very construction of his book as a microcosm with its own inticate features and wider themes. There is a brief chapter on the history of puns in previous Greek and a few Latin texts which is interesting for a more general view of the technique of puns throughout ancient literature.

Probably not a book for a general reader to pick up, but definitely for someone who wants a closer reading of the text.

by Laurent Binet
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An autobiographical biography, 15 July 2013
This review is from: HHhH (Paperback)
What annoyed me the most before reading this was that no one could tell me what type of book it was (novel/historical account etc). Having read it I can see why, and (like many other reviews here) can't pin down the genre, because there is nothing else like it.

The important thing is that no matter what the genre it is an amazing book. Original, gripping, meticulous in its historical accuracy (not one thing is made up apart from dialogues the author imagines where there are no accounts), it covers a fascinating topic that enhances and changes one's perspective of the Nazi regime. Binet's stream of consciousness is interesting and easy to read by its ability to drift into directionless meandering thoughts then suddenly being pulled back to the heart of the action in the 1930s and 40s Reich.

This book feels more like an interesting and memorable discussion that Binet is having with himself than a rigidly structured historical account of the Nazi's rise to power and Heydrich's role in that; more notepad than novel, you feel not only as if you've read the book but that you've written it with him.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
by James Shapiro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uniquely insightful, 16 Sept. 2012
I've read/seen a very limited number of Shakespeare plays, so the primary concern for me was whether this book would be too specialized. It wasn't. The quotation on the front of this book is dead on - 1599 is completely original. Whilst one might think that going through Shakespeare's whole life would be the most informative and thorough study of the man, by focusing on one year Shapiro gets into the mindset of our most famous playwright, taking us through the key events of 1599 and exploring some specific aspects of Shakespeare's life, thus showing how a myriad of factors all seeped into his thoughts whilst writing.

I did find it tough going in parts, when Shapiro became really involved in the history. However, these passages were rare, and the majority of historical accounts were extremely interesting, particularly when events were related to the content of Shakespeare's plays, often showing how pertinent (and sensitive) the issues Shakespeare was addressing were at the time.

If you have any interest in Shakespeare, whether you have read/seen all of his plays, or none, this will be an informative and enjoyable read.

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