Monday, August 11, 2008

A Trio of Quick Book Reviews

Despite the summer heat and humidity giving me cause for impatience and a lack of concentration Ive recently read some thought provoking and diverting stuff.
In no particular order then firstly..
Rubicon. Tom Holland.2003.Abacus.389 pages
Having had my interest piqued in the Roman Empire by the HBO series Rome I was given this book to read.Hollands work brings to life the final years of the Roman Republic.The book is packed full of interesting facts and figures as the author has used a variety of primary Greek and Roman sources as well as more modern works and authors in his research.
I didnt realise the full extent or reach of the Roman Empire or its effect.."In the East great cities were ransacked for treasure-but in the West it was the earth.The result was mining on a scale not to be witnessed again until the Industrial Revolution"pg42. or later on pg 43"Measurements of lead in the ice of Greenlands glaciers which show a staggering increase in concentration during this period,bear witness to the volumes of poisonous smoke huge mines belched out".

What I liked also was that all the leading characters of the time such as Pompey,Caesar and Cato are fleshed out and handled evenly by the author leaving it up to the reader to decide who are the good guys and who are the bad.Who acted out of selfish greed and who acted for the greater good.
Many pages are also spent describing the foundation of society.Its different ranks and obligations,the role of women,families and politics are also covered in this detailed but never dull account.
All in all quite fascinating.Prior to watching Rome I knew little about this era.It seems odd a TV series could spur me on to read further about the subject.

Speaking of TV,the next book is one that accompanies a TV series.
12 Books That Changed The World.Melyvn Bragg.Hodder and Stoughton.2006.344pages
As the author notes in his Introduction he has selected 12 books not "the 12 books" that changed history.It should also be noted that the books selected are all British.No ancient Greeks or books by Marx or Mao.Even calling them "books" as such is a stretch as one of the authors selections is a patent for a machine while another choice is a rule book.
The bulk of the book consists of the author introducing and justifying his choices.He puts each into its social and historical context and explains how it impacted and continues to have an influence today.
Braggs choices are highly individualistic,though some would be difficult to disagree with such as Isaac Newtons Principia Mathematica or Darwins On the Origin of the Species.I think its doubtful that the Rule Book of Association Football would be included in an American version of this book.Indeed it would be curious to speculate what would be included in such a work.

Last but by no means least is this offering from Julian Barnes.
The History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters.Julian Barnes.Jonathan Cape.1989.372 pages.
This novel isnt really as the title states a history of the world.Its more a group of short stories which are tenuously linked to one another.Seemingly random characters and episodes from the voyage of the Ark to the story of a religious astronaut are described.Historical figures such as Noah and Jonah pop up throughout the book.As do a number of lesser creatures often in a surprisingly unrelated manner.In fact it was fun to try and guess if and how the author would or wouldnt include earlier characters or things in later chapters.
Some chapters stand on their own and therefore the novel doesnt need to be read in a strict chapter order.
Barnes ponders such issues as love.."The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love"pg 289 as well as the afterlife...
"Is there Hell?"."Oh no," she replied."That was just necessary propaganda" pg363.

While I found the book entertaining and funny at times,I wasnt "immensely moved" as the quote on the front cover suggests.Its a difficult book to recommend as its quirkiness and imaginative style may not appeal to everyone.

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