1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman

Save me from the exceptional…

😐 😐

In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.

Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.

It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.

Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.

PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

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….It was one of those dismal Berlin mornings, when the famous Berliner-luft seems not so much bracing as merely raw, the moisture stinging the face and hands like a thousand frozen needles. On the Potsdamer Chaussee, the spray from the wheels of the passing cars forced the few pedestrians close to the sides of the buildings. Watching them through the rain-flecked window, March imagined a city of blind men, feeling their way to work.
….It was all so normal. Later, that was what would strike him most. It was like having an accident: before it, nothing out of the ordinary; then the moment; and after it, a world that was changed forever. For there was nothing more routine than a body fished out of the Havel. It happened twice a month – derelicts and failed businessmen, reckless kids and lovelorn teenagers; accidents and suicides and murders; the desperate, the foolish, the sad.

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….On April 2, 1917, Wilson called on Congress to declare war on Germany. Seven months later, Lenin struck at the heart of Russia’s post-czarist Provisional Government and imposed the world’s first one-party state dictatorship. The world would never be the same again, on both counts.
….One mission of this book, therefore, is to show how these two intellectuals and dreamers managed to achieve those two ends and, in the process, overthrow traditional standards of geopolitics and alter forever the distribution of world power. Indeed, the world that both sought to bring into being was one that would be dominated not by laws and institutions, but by ideals and ideologies. The great goal of future foreign policy for both the United States and the eventual Soviet Union would be, not to protect their own national interests as narrowly understood, as almost all nations understood foreign policy before 1917, but to make others see the world as they did. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the eve of the French Revolution, “Sometimes men must be forced to be free.” That was a challenge the French revolutionaries took on, with disastrous results for Europe. It was one Wilson and Lenin both accepted in 1917, with (one is forced to conclude) disastrous results for the entire world.

(Am I the only one who wants to argue individually with nearly every word of those paragraphs? Oh dear, this could be an exhausting read… 😉 )

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….“For Joe?” said Mrs. Stevens placidly, her eye on the hat.
….Audrey nodded. She took a pin from her mouth, found a place in the hat for it, and said, “He likes a bit of pink.”
….“I don’t say I mind a bit of pink myself,” said her aunt. “Joe Turner isn’t the only one.”
….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

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….When I first got here I loved the landscape, the fertility and fecundity of it, the life it gave off. There were no bare places. Everything was shrouded in shoots and thorns and leaves; there were little paths running everywhere, made by animals or insects. The smells and colours were powerful. I used all my free time, hours and hours of it, to go off walking into the bush. I wanted to move closer to the lush heart of things. But over time what had compelled me most deeply began to show a different, hidden side. The vitality and heat became oppressive and somehow threatening. Nothing could be maintained here, nothing stayed the same. Metal started to corrode and rust, fabrics rotted, bright paint faded away. You could not clear a place in the forest and expect to find it again two weeks later.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 152…

Episode 152…

The stunning fall in the TBR continues! Down 2 since I last reported, to 219! I bet you wish your willpower was as superhuman as mine…

Here are a few more that should be coming up soon… well, soonish. After Gone with the Wind

Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. Conan Doyle is nearly as fascinating a character in his own right as his creation, Sherlock Holmes…

The Blurb says: Just before Christmas 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 82-year-old spinster, was found bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. A valuable diamond brooch was missing, and police soon fastened on a suspect – Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant who was rumoured to have a disreputable character. Slater had an alibi, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment in the notorious Peterhead Prison.

Seventeen years later, a convict called William Gordon was released from Peterhead. Concealed in a false tooth was a message, addressed to the only man Slater thought could help him – Arthur Conan Doyle. Always a champion of the downtrodden, Conan Doyle turned his formidable talents to freeing Slater, deploying a forensic mind worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Drawing from original sources including Oscar Slater’s prison letters, this is Margalit Fox’s vivid and compelling account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history.

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Science Fiction

One of the science fictions entries on my Classics Club list. I read several of the Stainless Steel Rat series back in my teens and enjoyed them, but have never revisited them. Will they have stood the test of time?

The Blurb says: Meet Slippery Jim diGriz…

…cosmic criminal, the smoothest, sneakiest, con-man in the known Universe. He can take any bank in the Galaxy, con a captain out of his ship, start a war or stop one – whichever pays most.

So when the law finally catches up with the Stainless Steel Rat, there is only one thing to do – make him a cop. And turn him loose on a villainous lady who is building herself a battleship.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Jónasson’s earlier books so am looking forward to this – the start of a new series apparently.

The Blurb says: At sixty-four, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police is about to take on her last case before she retires: A young woman, an asylum seeker from Russia, found murdered on the seaweed covered rocks of the Vatnsleysuströnd in Iceland.

When Hulda starts to ask questions it isn’t long before she realizes that no one can be trusted, and that no one is telling the whole truth. Spanning Reykjavik, the Icelandic highlands and the cold, isolated fjords, The Darkness is a thrilling new crime thriller from one of the biggest new names in Scandi noir.

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History on Audio

As my Russian Revolution challenge draws to a close, what better way to end the factual side of it than with this new book from one of my favourite historians, Arthur Herman…

The Blurb says: This is the story of two men and the two decisions that transformed world history in a single tumultuous year, 1917: Wilson’s entry into World War I and Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution.

In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson, champion of American democracy but also segregation, advocate for free trade and a new world order based on freedom and justice, thrust the United States into World War I in order to make the “world safe for democracy” – only to see his dreams for a liberal international system dissolve into chaos, bloodshed, and betrayal.

That October, Vladimir Lenin, Communist revolutionary and advocate for class war and “dictatorship of the proletariat”, would overthrow Russia’s earlier democratic revolution that had toppled the all-power czar, all in the name of liberating humanity – and instead would set up the most repressive totalitarian regime in history, the Soviet Union.

In this incisive, fast-paced history, New York Times best-selling author Arthur Herman brilliantly reveals how Lenin and Wilson rewrote the rules of modern geopolitics. Through the end of World War I, countries marched into war only to increase or protect their national interests. After World War I, countries began going to war over ideas. Together, Lenin and Wilson unleashed the disruptive ideologies that would sweep the world, from nationalism and globalism to Communism and terrorism, and that continue to shape our world today.

Our New World Disorder is the legacy left by Wilson and Lenin and their visions of the perfectibility of man. One hundred years later, we still sit on the powder keg they first set the detonator to through war and revolution.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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NetGalley Says Yes!

Mutual approval…

Last week, I posted about my NetGalley rejections, so this week I thought I’d talk about why I love NetGalley nearly as much as chocolate…

Of the 402 titles I’ve been approved for since I joined NG in 2013, I’ve sent feedback for 373 books (the rest are still on my TBR) and have posted reviews for 302 (though for a few I only posted a brief review on Goodreads). The others I abandoned, either because they weren’t for me or because they were too badly formatted to be enjoyable reading. Of the ones I’ve reviewed, roughly 65% were either 4 or 5 stars reads for me – pretty good, huh? Not quite as high as my ratings for books I buy, but then I’m more likely to take a chance on new or new-to-me authors through NG.

Narrowing my best picks down to a reasonable number would be nearly impossible, so instead I’ve decided to list a few of the authors I was introduced to by NG who have now become firm favourites – most are established authors but were new to me. So, in no particular order, here they are – my…

NETGALLEY HALL OF FAME

(Click on the author’s name to see my reviews.)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

My introduction to Robert Harris came through An Officer and a Spy, a wonderful fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Since then I’ve read every new book he’s released, plus I’ve started on his back catalogue, and I’ve loved every one. However I have loads more to go – he’s quite prolific! Next up will be his Cicero trilogy. He achieves the perfect marriage of research, plotting and excellent writing – great stuff!

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HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Given how much I’ve talked about various stories being Lovecraftian in my horror slot, it’s strange to think that I’d never heard of him till I read an Oxford World’s Classics collection called The Classic Horror Stories, with a very informative introduction by Roger Luckhurst (another entry to the Hall of Fame – I now look out specifically for books he introduces). I don’t altogether love Lovecraft – too long-winded, too racist – but I recognise absolutely the huge influence he has been on the ‘weird’ story and on horror in general. Since that first meeting, he’s made an annual appearance in my Tuesday Terror! slot.

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SC Gwynne

SC Gwynne

I was so blown away by SC Gwynne’s brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, that I gave it the FF Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The prize for this prestigious award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book, even if I have to buy it myself! Imagine my… ahem… delight, then, when Gwynne’s next book was The Perfect Pass – a book about American Football, a subject in which my interest and knowledge tie for last place. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it! Proof that a good writer can bring any subject to life. Oh, and I didn’t have to buy it – NetGalley gave me that one too.

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John Gaspard

John Gaspard

I’ve loved every book in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, all of which I’ve been given via NetGalley. A little too dark to be cosies, these are plotted in Golden Age style but with a contemporary setting. Eli is a stage magician and each book is set around a particular trick. Gaspard is brilliant at bringing the magic to life on the page, while following the magician’s code of never revealing how it’s done. I still laugh every time I remember how he managed to read my mind during a trick in book 1! His next book is due this month – can’t wait! And I’ve also bought an earlier book of his that predates this series – The Ripperologists – which sounds like fun too.

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Ken Kalfus

The first new-to-me author to whom NetGalley introduced me, when I fell in love with the cover of Equilateral and took a punt on it. He’s now a firm favourite – a writer who gets a lot of critical attention but still doesn’t seem to get the public readership and recognition I feel he deserves. I’ve read and loved a few of his books since then, old and new – only a couple more to go as he’s not nearly prolific enough! He spent several years in Russia so a lot of his books are directly or indirectly about life under the Soviets – he’s one of the inspirations behind my current fascination with that regime.

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Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman has firmly established himself as my favourite historian, despite some stiff competition in what has been a golden age for history books over the last few years. My first introduction to him was The Cave and The Light – a comprehensive look at the competing influences of Plato and Aristotle over the last 2,500 years of philosophy. Phew! Not an easy read, but a brilliant one. Since then, I’ve read all his new books and most of the ones that interest me from his back catalogue. And I’m super excited that he’s bringing out a new one on the Russian Revolution this month – the perfect way to end my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

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William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney

As probably the most influential Scottish crime writer of all time, known as the Father of Tartan Noir, I’m ashamed that I had never read any McIlvanney till NetGalley offered a new edition of his 1977 book, Laidlaw. I was blown away by the quality of the writing, his brilliant use of Glaswegian dialect and the total authenticity of his portrayal of the city at the time of my own youth in it. I have gone on to read the rest of the Laidlaw trilogy and one of his fiction novels, and am looking forward hugely to gradually working my way through the rest of his stuff. For McIlvanney alone, NetGalley has been a wondrous thing for me.

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So there they are – seven great authors I may never have read had it not been for NetGalley. And that’s not to mention all the wonderful books I’ve had from existing favourites like Jane Casey, Sharon Bolton, Belinda Bauer, etc., etc. All I can really say is…

THANKS, NETGALLEY!

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What about you? If you’re a NetGalley member have you found new favourites through them? If so, I’d love to hear – either in the comments or in a post of your own.

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Factual

All stand please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

The Golden Age of factual writing continues this year, although my general reading slump means I’ve read considerably fewer than usual. Fortunately, even from this restricted pool there have been some corkers, each of which is worthy of the award. A difficult choice, especially since there’s always an element of comparing apples and oranges in this category, but in the end the judge’s decision was unanimous…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

douglas macarthurDouglas MacArthur: American Warrior
by Arthur Herman

From the prologue of this biography, where Herman gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility, as Herman’s always do. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable.

Click to see the full review

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines

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the wicked boyThe Wicked Boy
by Kate Summerscale

For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from their house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.

This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. Summerscale tells the story of the crime and its aftermath – firstly, the trial and conviction of young Robert, and then following him through his later life to answer the question of whether there can be any kind of redemption in this life for someone who has committed such a horrific crime. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is an intriguing look at how children were treated in the justice system at the time, and at the regime within Broadmoor, the state hospital for the criminally insane.

Click to see the full review

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the murder of king james iThe Murder of King James I
by
Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.

I found the story the authors told fascinating. Although it’s more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, it’s very well written – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene.

Click to see the full review

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citizen kaneCitizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey
by Harlan Lebo

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it. It may not have made me enjoy the film more in the end, but I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness…

Click to see full review

Citizen Kane galleons

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST FACTUAL

gandhi and churchill

Gandhi & Churchill
by Arthur Herman

Yes, Herman makes his second appearance in the shortlist, and fourth overall appearance in the four years I’ve been doing these awards! I think that officially makes me a fan!

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

The book is quite simply a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

Click to see the book review

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Next week: Best Crime Fiction/Thriller Award

TBR Thursday 85…

Episode 85…

And for the third week in a row, the TBR is stuck on 165. It’s not so much that books are being added this time, though, as that my reading has begun to drop off as it always does when the summer tennis season begins to build up. Somehow my mind just doesn’t seem to be on books…
Rafa Nadal Doha

Erm…what was I saying? Oh, yes – books! Well, here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

douglas macarthurI know nothing about Douglas MacArthur and generally speaking wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in a biography of a US general. But this one is written by the fabulous Arthur Herman, whose previous books on philosophy, the Scottish Enlightenment and Gandhi and Churchill I have loved, so if anyone can interest me in MacArthur, I bet Herman can! Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Douglas MacArthur was arguably the last American public figure to be worshipped unreservedly as a national hero, the last military figure to conjure up the romantic stirrings once evoked by George Armstrong Custer and Robert E. Lee. But he was also one of America’s most divisive figures, a man whose entire career was steeped in controversy. Was he an avatar or an anachronism, a brilliant strategist or a vainglorious mountebank? Drawing on a wealth of new sources, Arthur Herman delivers a powerhouse biography that peels back the layers of myth—both good and bad—and exposes the marrow of the man beneath.

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Fiction

exposureCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen several very positive reviews of this around the blogosphere, plus I have to admit I love the cover a lot!

The Blurb says: London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.

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Crime

daisy in chainsFabulous title, fabulous cover, fabulous Sharon Bolton! Fabulous! Strange blurb though… Courtesy of NetGalley again. I love NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Famous killers have fan clubs.

Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, Hamish Wolfe gets countless adoring letters every day. He’s handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he’s innocent, and that he’s the man of their dreams.

Who would join such a club?

Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.

Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she’s immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . .

Would you?

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the widow bartonThis one is Cleo’s fault – it was her review that sent me scuttling off to… you’ve guessed it… NetGalley! Honestly, I reckon it’s a conspiracy, don’t you? And I think it’s becoming clear who is the chief suspect…

The Blurb says: We’ve all seen him: the man – the monster – staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him?

Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 77… and the #AW80Books Challenge…

Episode 77…

 

Oh dear! The TBR is still going up – by 1 to 165! Part of the problem is that I seem to be reading lots of ridiculously long books at the moment. Question – does any crime novel really need to be over 600 pages?

So only a couple are likely to escape from the log-jam any time soon…

Factual

 

gandhi and churchillHaving enjoyed two of Herman’s other books, The Cave and the Light and The Scottish Enlightenment, I have high hopes for this one, which was kindly provided by Santa.

The Blurb says: In this fascinating and meticulously researched book, bestselling historian Arthur Herman sheds new light on two of the most universally recognizable icons of the twentieth century, and reveals how their forty-year rivalry sealed the fate of India and the British Empire. They were born worlds apart: Winston Churchill to Britain’s most glamorous aristocratic family, Mohandas Gandhi to a pious middle-class household in a provincial town in India. Yet Arthur Herman reveals how their lives and careers became intertwined as the twentieth century unfolded. Both men would go on to lead their nations through harrowing trials and two world wars–and become locked in a fierce contest of wills that would decide the fate of countries, continents, and ultimately an empire.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

avenue of mysteriesCourtesy of NetGalley. Hmm… I can’t say the early reviews on this are terribly promising, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: As we grow older – most of all, in what we remember and what we dream – we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present. As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but his dreams and memories will travel with him; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. ‘An aura of fate had marked him,’ John Irving writes. ‘The chain of events, the links in our lives – what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do – all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.’

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past – in Mexico – collides with his future.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do either of these tempt you?

 

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – #AW80Books

 

For someone who says I don’t do challenges, I somehow seem to keep being tempted by them! This is another of the kind I like, relaxed, no strict rules, and most of all a completely open timescale.

Hosted by Sarah and Lucy at the wonderful Hard Book Habit, here’s what they say…

Here’s the deal.  You’ll need to read 80 books set or connected with the random destinations of your choice, then you blog about each book that you read en route. You can choose any books you like – this challenge is not limited to fiction – and the only catch is that you must read at least one book connected to each continent, one sea-based book, and a book that involves travel – think the Orient Express, flight, hot-air balloons, train journeys, car trips, etc… the rest is up to you.

Since I already tend to range fairly widely around the world of fiction (I think), I reckon this should be a challenge that I can mostly meet from my normal reading. So I thought it might be fun to go back to the original book that inspired the challenge and see if I can find books for each stage of Phineas Fogg’s original journey. Wikipedia not only tells me where Fogg and his faithful servant Passepartout stopped, but they provide a map!

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

Personally I think their route looks fairly dull, so I hope to do plenty of detours along the way. Since the challenge started at the beginning of the year, I’m backdating, so I’ve marked off any places I’ve already been, and I’ll only be including books I recommend (unless I get stuck). Here’s the plan…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express
  3. FranceThe Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – I Am No One
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

Some of these will be harder than others so a bit of creativity might be required. Suggestions very welcome, especially for the places I’ve highlighted in purple, so please get your thinking caps on! Any genre…

The Detours

 

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been in the last couple of months.

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus

 

8 down, 72 to go!

 

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FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

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the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

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roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

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the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the scottish enlightenmentAlthough there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As with Herman’s more recent book, The Cave and the Light, this is a hugely readable and enjoyable history – Herman writes in a way that makes his books very accessible to non-academic readers.

Starting in the century or so before the Enlightenment period, Herman explains the various factors that led to the Union of 1707. He shows the stranglehold that the Kirk had on Scottish society, but that out of this grew the idea of man as a free individual – that monarchs were not absolute and that tyrannies could and should be challenged. He gives the Kirk the credit for the idea that education should be for all, making Scotland one of the most literate societies in the world, with an appetite for books other than the Bible. And he explains very clearly the impact of the Darien scheme on both the financial state of Scotland and on its self-confidence as a nation. In Herman’s view, the Union was a resoundingly positive development for Scotland, despite its unpopularity amongst ordinary people, since it opened up opportunities and access to the rest of the world via the rapidly developing British Empire, hence revolutionising Scotland both economically and culturally.

Francis Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson

In the next couple of chapters, Herman deals in some depth with two of the earliest and most influential figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson and Kames, showing how their ideas developed, where they contrasted and overlapped, and the influence that each had on those thinkers who followed them. He highlights Hutcheson as the altruist, the first liberal, who developed the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with man as a free individual choosing to work together for the common good. Kames is portrayed more as a hard-nosed realist (cynic?) believing that societies come together primarily to provide protection for their property from external threats. In these chapters, Herman also shows the beginnings of what we would now call the ‘social sciences’ – the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Lord Kames
Lord Kames

The rest of the first section of the book is taken up with a wide-ranging history of eighteenth century Scotland. Herman discusses the reasons behind the Jacobite rebellions, showing that the divide was much more complex than the simplistic picture of Scotland v England, so beloved of nationalists and film-makers alike. He discusses the clan culture of the Highlands in some depth, stripping away much of the romanticism that has built up over it in the intervening years. He shows how Lowland Scotland, what we would now think of as the Central Belt, was much more in tune with its English partners, particularly as the two main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh began to reap major economic benefits from access to the Empire. Throughout these chapters, he continues to show how Enlightenment thinking was developing via such huge figures as Hume and Smith, and influencing not just Scottish society, but attracting students from the UK and Europe to study at Scottish universities.

Adam Smith & David Hume
Adam Smith & David Hume

The second half of the book is largely devoted to showing how the Scottish Diaspora, forced and voluntary, meant that Scottish ideas were disseminated throughout the Empire, particularly to the white English-speaking Dominions. From educators to scientists and engineers, Herman’s position is that Scots were responsible for the birth of what we would now think of as ‘modernity’. Being an American, Herman lays particular emphasis on what he sees as the huge contribution Scots and Scottish ideas made to the founding and Constitution of the US, physically, politically and intellectually. He shows how, in his opinion, the inbuilt ‘gridlock’ of the American political system rose specifically out of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, to provide protection for individuals and communities from the power of an overweening government. He explains the huge influence that Scots had in creating and developing the early American system of education and universities such as Princeton. And, of course, he credits the great Scottish economists with the creation of the capitalist system he so clearly admires.

Arthur Herman
Arthur Herman

While I found this a most informative and enjoyable read (who doesn’t enjoy having their national ego stroked?), I did feel that at points, particularly in the latter half of the book, Herman was stretching his argument a bit. I would be the last person to belittle the huge contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers; or of the Scottish engineers, scientists, writers, religious leaders and statesmen who spread the Enlightenment ideas throughout the colonies and dominions of the Empire. But sometimes Herman gives the distinct impression that the Scots are really the only people who have ever done anything – the rest of the world seems to have rather passively sat back and let the Scots get on with it. (And frankly I’m not sure if I want to be held responsible for America!) If a man of another nationality is credited with something, Herman trawls his background to give him a Scottish connection – he studied at a Scottish University or his grandfather came from just over the English border so was nearly Scottish or his grandmother once ate haggis. (OK, I might have exaggerated that last one a little.)

But with that small reservation aside, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of the history of this period, both as it affected Scotland and the wider world. And, in this year of the Scottish Independence referendum, a useful reminder of the reasons behind the Union and the early economic benefits of it, providing food for thought for either camp as to whether those reasons and benefits are still relevant today.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

the cave and the lightEnquire Within About Everything…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. And for this reader at least, his argument is a convincing one.

The book covers so much in terms of both philosophy and history that a full review would run to thousands of words. Happily that’s not going to happen here, dear reader. I will simply say that, from knowing virtually nothing about philosophy, I now feel as well informed as if I had done an undergraduate level course in the subject.

Plato
Plato

Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. He begins by giving a fairly in-depth analysis of the chief insights of both Plato and his former pupil Aristotle, using Plato’s metaphor of the cave and the light to show how their views diverged. He shows Plato as the mystic and idealist, believer in the divinity of Pythagorean geometry, advocate of the philosopher king, believing that the route to the light of wisdom is available only to some through contemplation and speculation and that these few should set rules for the rest to follow. Aristotle is shown as the man of science and common sense, believing that there is much to be learned from an examination of life in the cave itself and advocating that all men (sorry, women, you’ll have to wait a couple of millennia) should be involved in government with the family at the heart of society.

Herman takes these rival viewpoints (which I have grossly oversimplified and can only hope that I’ve got the basics approximately right) and shows how each has achieved ascendancy at different points in history. And what a journey he takes us on! The fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! At each step along the way, he discusses the leading philosophers of the time, linking the chain of development of the various schools of thought back in a continuous line to one or other of Plato and Aristotle – occasionally both – and showing how the thinkers of the time affected the politics of nations. To my personal delight, he pays considerable attention to the Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment.

Raphael's The School of Athens (wikipaintings.org)
Raphael’s The School of Athens
(wikipaintings.org)

This is not just a history of philosophy and philosophers though – like philosophy itself, it covers just about every area of human interaction. The book provides the clearest overview I have ever read of the rise and development of Christianity, the divisions and schisms, the beliefs of the various factions. Herman leads us through from the Old Testament, St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Erasmus – well, you name them, they’re here. He tells us about the people as individuals as well as their beliefs, so we learn about their backgrounds, where they were educated, whom they were influenced by and whom they in turn influenced.

On politics, amongst many other things, Herman writes in depth about the philosophers of the French Revolution, the founding of the American constitution and the rise of Nazism and fascism. He convincingly argues that the twentieth century history of the parallel rise of democracy and totalitarianism was seeded in the divide between Aristotle and Plato over two millennia earlier. Again the links in the chain are carefully connected – from Plato to Karl Marx, from Aristotle to Karl Popper.

Aristotle
Aristotle

The third main strand is science, and again Herman leads us through the ages, showing the close interconnection between the development of science and philosophy, together with the influence of scientific advancement on religion and politics – and vice versa.

Herman’s writing style is amazingly accessible considering the breadth and depth of the information that he conveys. He doesn’t over-simplify, but explains clearly enough for the non-academic to follow his arguments. My review suggests that he treats each of the strands separately, but in fact he tells the story in a linear fashion, weaving all the strands together, so that a very clear picture is given of the different stages of development of each at a given point in time. At points where it might all get too confusing, he takes the time to repeat the basics to put them into the context of the period he’s discussing, meaning that this poor befuddled reader didn’t have to keep flicking back to remind herself of who believed what.

There is so much in the book that I found this review particularly difficult to write. If I have given any idea of how impressive I found it, then the review has worked. That’s not to say I didn’t disagree with Herman from time to time. On occasion I felt he was stretching his argument a bit too far, perhaps, and once or twice he would make a sweeping statement completely dismissing conventionally held views in favour of his own. And towards the end I felt he was perhaps allowing his own political viewpoint to show through a little too much, in favour of ‘Aristotelian’ capitalism as opposed to ‘Platonic’ socialism for instance (though he pulled that back a little in his conclusion). But the very fact that, by the end of the book, I occasionally felt in a position to question his stance showed me how much I had gained from reading it. Not the lightest read in the world, but for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy, highly recommended.

Photo credit: Beth Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

Arthur Herman has been a Professor of History at various universities in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book Gandhi and Churchill.

(Phew! Made it in less than 1000 words – just! Apologies!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 7…

Episode 7

 

Since I can’t possibly add any more to the heaving, tottering pile of books waiting to be read, there will be no TBR Thursday winner this week. So instead here’s a few of the books that I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple of months…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the cave and the lightThis falls into the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ category, also known as the ‘what was I thinking?’ genre. However it’ll either be great or I will simply remind myself that suffering is good for the soul…apparently…

“Arthur Herman has now written the definitive sequel to his New York Times bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, and extends the themes of the book—which sold half a million copies worldwide—back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the age of the Internet. The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.”

*****

identicalAlready out in the US, but not yet published in the UK. I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow from way back when, although he is variable. But when he’s good, he’s very, very good…

“The Gianis’s and the Kronons. Two families entangled in a long and complex history of love and deceit . . . Twenty five years ago, after a society picnic held by businessman and politician Zeus Kronon, Zeus’ headstrong daughter Dita was found murdered. Her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, confessed to the crime. Now Cass has been released from prison into the care of his twin, Mayoral candidate Paul Gianis, who is in the middle of a high profile political campaign. But Dita’s brother Hal is convinced there is information surrounding his sister’s death that remains buried – and he won’t rest until he’s discovered the truth. A gripping masterpiece of dark family rivalries, shadowy politics and hidden secrets, Identical is the stunning new thriller from bestselling author Scott Turow, writing at the height of his powers.”

*****

smithAlthough this is nominally a children’s book, I first read it as a youngish adult and thought it was great. Now being republished as a ‘modern classic’ (gulp! am I really that old? – NB That’s a rhetorical question!) I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my memory of it…

“Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?”

*****

Pre-orders:

 

sycamore rowA new Grisham is always a must-read – never less than good (except when he does one of his dreadful sports books) and often great. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to read A Time to Kill in preparation – so two for the TBR…

“For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, Sycamore Row is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.”

*****


the goldfinchLike many other people I loved The Secret History and was disappointed by The Little Friend, so intrigued to see whether this will be a return to form…

“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. “

*****

entry islandAnd finally, following his triumphant Lewis Trilogy, Peter May moves on to pastures new. As someone who has followed May through his China thrillers, his French series and the Lewis books (not to mention his career as scriptwriter/producer on Scottish Television), I felt the Lewis books were his best work. How will the new series compare?

“When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?