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on 6 January 2013
This is a fun book, a humourous history of the French Revolution as told by a socialist comedian.

Mark Steel wears his political affiliations on his sleeve, and so it is no surprise that he is firmly on the side of 'the people' in the story of the French Revolution. He is polemical, biased and prone to digression the whole way through the book, but that doesn't detract from the story one bit. It's a fun read, and also informative throughout.

I actually read it as a first introduction to the French Revolution, as it isn't a period I am entirely familiar with. I rather think I'd have been better off reading a more traditional telling of the Revolution beforehand, and then reading this as a counterpoint. For every detail Steel goes into, there feels like there is probably an awful lot left out. That is hardly surprising, seeing as it covers the entire period from the marriage of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette through to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in little over 270 pages.

It's not a serious book and it doesn't pretend to be, but anyone looking for a light-hearted intoduction to the French Revolution could do a lot worse than read this book. If they're anything like me, however, they'll want to read a more thorough history afterwards.
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on 31 July 2003
Mark Steel is
(A) uncompromisingly leftie
(B) extremely funny
(C) a great storyteller and comedian
(D) a wonderful historian
(E) all of the above.
This is a very strange work of history - there's as much of Steel himself in there as there is of Danton, Robespierre & co. Steel applies his vast experience of standup comedy and ramshackle socialist organisations to provide a worm's eye view of the French Revolution. Sure, Schama's Citizens will tell you a lot more - it's four times as long - but you won't have nearly as many laughs and you won't learn nearly as much about the weird quirks of most of the key individuals in the revolution.
Steel's book is pretty good history as well as damn good comedy - comedy's always at its best when it's soundly based in absurd fact, and Steel finds no shortage of often very black humour in the circumstances leading up to and following the Revolution. His analysis of the causes, key players and context behind the revolution is all sound, and his debunking of much writing about the leaders of the revolution very refreshing.
His careful use of anacrhonism, one-liners and comparison of circumstances in France with his modern experiences keep even the most tangled periods of Revolutionary history lively and there's a few good laughs in every chapter - something you can't say about most of the books in his bibliography!
I hope this is the first of many histories by Mark Steel.
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on 17 February 2005
Mark Steel's book manages the difficult trick of being both highly informative (he convincingly explains the importance of the French Revolution in shaping the modern world) and also very funny (on many occasions I found myself laughing out loud). While telling the story, he takes on conventional historians for their dubious assumptions about the causes of events. (Discussing those, especially Sharma, who seem to believe that the whole thing was caused by the agitation of a few thousand zealots, he observes: 'Revolutionary action does usually involve a committed minority, but that applies to state-led action as well. The difference is that then the minority become official heros. After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill didn't say, "Oh typical, just a handful of activists with big mouths and Spitfires."')
With amusing and sometimes self-depreciating anecdotes about his experiences in various left wing groups, this is definitely a good read. My only criticism is that some of the analogies he makes with modern events are so specific to the UK in the early 2000s, that readers from other parts of the world, or ten years hence, are bound to miss some of the jokes. Highly recommended for anyone who is a victim of modern historical education, and wants to know what the Revolution was really about.
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on 2 July 2003
Mark Steel scores another winner with this fun, socialist interpretation of the French Revolution which is a wonderful antidote to the usual dry and disapproving tomes on the subject. Steel draws on philosophy, history, literature, music and contemporary events to make a rousing argument for the power of activism and ideas. The passion he feels gives the book a lot of bite, the humour is sharp, witty and observant but it is the ability to look at the very human facets of 18th century France which illustrates how the fight for social justice extends throughout history and is relevant to today. The diversity of his sources is another point in the books favour and I will be re-reading CLR James 'The Black Jacobins' as I'd forgotten what a wonderful history it was. The book is dedicated to the late Joe Strummer and I have no doubt he would have loved it - If only all socialists had the same breadth of vision and humour we'd have a very different style of government.
An erudite, informative and entertaining book, which I'd recommend to anyone with a heart, brain and a social conscience.
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I bought this book not because I would claim to have had any prior interested in the French Revolution- I didn't- but because it was Mark Steel, who I know of because of his TV appearances, and because I found it cheap. I got a bargain.
I find it very difficult to find the relevance of a lot of historical events to our everyday modern lives, and that's precisely what Mark Steel's got that everything else I've had seems to lack. The relevance and cutting analogies to modern-day politicians really bring an amazing subject and the major twists and turns to life, where other historical accounts have managed to belittle the French Revolution into just one big festival of violence that the civilised world doesn't like to talk about.
Oh, and if that weren't enough, in parts it's so funny you drop the book.
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VINE VOICEon 13 January 2006
Any fan of Mark Steel's superb lectures on radio 4 will know exactly what they hope to get from this book - and they get it in spades. Vive La Revolution is an intelligent history of...the French Revolution, but delivered with Mark Steel's superb eye for the hilarious modern parallel. That's it folks - you get a very comprehensive look back at the characters, major themes, inconsistencies, injustices and popular misconceptions about this chapter of history, and will laugh out loud whilst doing so.
Steel is enthusiastic, knowledgable, even-handed and indeed challenging as a straight historian - like George MacDonald Fraser's 'Flashman' books, this book will teach you a lot about the facts of given period. Like Flashman, it's also hugely entertaining and plain funny with his ability to seize upon and illuminate the mundane and bizarre quirks of huge historical figures (in this sense it's very much like Monty Python's 'Life of Brian').
Throughout the book every point is illustrated by comparing it with a modern day equivalent. These analogies becomes a little formulaic if I'm honest (his comparison of interesting, high risk Revolutionary politicans with modern banal, zero-risk New Labour counterparts) - it's what the humour of the book depends upon but it does not become tiresome, even if it does become a little predictable.
One highlight was Napolean...Steel pointed out that in the latter stages of his rule, Bonaparte relied upon the advice of a small imagined red genie...but in the end started ignoring even that...
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on 14 January 2004
A very enjoyable and accessible book on the French Revolution. Definitely worth a look for anyone remotely interested in this subject.
Mark Steel describes the events of, and motivations behind, the Revolution very well. He illustrates neatly how the demonisation of key players happened and still persists today, and shatters the myths convincingly. He certainly convinced me that this was one of the most important revolutions in history.
Throughout the book, there are funny asides, comparing past events to present. Many of these are genuinely humourous, however, I felt that at times they were unnecessary because the events had been well described and more or less spoke for themselves. doesn't he trust the reader to get it?
I also felt that some of his observations were too 'modern' and may cause the book to date quickly, which would be a shame since his book really does go a long way to challenge prevailing views on the revolution.
I look forward to Mark's next historical outing, and if anyone is studying, or wants to study, the French Revolution, this is a good place to start.
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on 17 October 2006
The study of history is important because it places modern day events in context and allows us to make better judgements. It is also full of fascinating characters and stories that are exciting, funny, inspiring, saddening and prescient.

So why was I so bored with History at school? Part of the answer is that the relevance of history becomes more obvious as we ourselves gain some experience of life. But the way that history is (or was) taught as a series of facts failed to convey the fascinating emotional and social aspects at its heart.

Mark Steel's genius lies in comedy and by continuously drawing parallels between the events of the French revolution and modern politics and society (with a UK bias) he will have you laughing out loud from the first page. He tells the story at a fast pace and with plenty of emphasis on the personalities involved. Along the way he debunks the lazy assumptions relied upon by certain conventional historians and passionately argues his case that the revolution is worthy of a balanced re-examination.

Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 29 June 2003
Anyone familiar with Mark Steel's excellent Radio 4 series, "The Mark Steel Lecture", (and his other books) will not be disappointed with his new book about the French Revolution. It is brilliant, with some real laugh-out-loud bits, and does a lot to highlight the often ludicrous myths about some of the central characters of the revolution. They got rid of the king ergo they must smell and that kind of thing, the sort of argument that should have been left behind in the playground but still seems to pop up when talking about revolutionaries, trade union reps., etc.
If history was taught like this, it would attract many more people, especially the young and especially when they realise that they make history, not the kings and queens and all the others we tend to see written about so much more than the "swinish multitude".
Go on, give yourself a laugh - you're worth it!
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on 9 August 2007
I buy a lot of non-fiction books that sit on my shelves looking interesting but going unread, or that I start and then drift away from. The best thing I can say for this book is that I picked it up and read it from start to finish with very little deviation in between. It is interesting and witty. I learnt about the French Revolution and enjoyed the experience - wa-hey!
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