Of Women: In the 21st Century

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 2 stars

Unlike Chakrabarti’s last book, On Liberty, I’m struggling to find a central thesis to this book. It takes as its premise that gender injustice is the greatest human rights abuse on the planet. The eight chapters describe the position of women in different fields of life, including the home, reproductive rights, schooling, conflict, and faith.

I ended up reading the book quite slowly as it felt denser and less engaging than its predecessor and never felt that it had the clarity of thought or of purpose of ‘On Liberty’. The problems that she articulates are all well understood and I didn’t feel that she offered anything new to the discussion, nor do I feel that solutions were offered. I’m not sure that many of the conclusions that she does reach were wildly original – the chapter on faith concludes that change has to come from within faith communities, for example.

Apologies for returning again to her previous book, but I thought ‘On Liberty’ was a great book and, alas, this didn’t live up to it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141985350
Publisher: Penguin

The History of England in the Eighteenth Century

By Thomas Babington Macaulay

Rating: 3 stars

This volume stitches together the essays of Thomas Macaulay to form a moderately cohesive narrative history of 18th (and first 30 years of 19th) century Britain. The introduction tells us that the editor pulled this together using essays, often for the Edinburgh Review spread across many years, so the editing and bridging is also quite impressive.

The history itself is quite odd. It does refer to interacting nations and chains of events, but often it focuses closely on the British Parliament, and follows the political knockabout of the great (and not so great) figures of the day. We cover administrations including Walpole, the Pelhams, both Pitts, Chatham and many more, often in enough detail to reassure me that modern politics aren’t so different to those of our forefathers. There was the same pettiness, infighting and occasional sparks of grace that we see today.

The history is focused very much on the Palace of Westminster, although the section talking about the attempts, and repeated failures, to deal with Ireland post-Union was very interesting to me. Although the book covers momentous periods – including the American war of independence and the Napoleonic Wars – it doesn’t cover them in any great depth.

Much of the book is told in a slightly detached tone, although you always get the impression that he’s more sympathetic to Whigs than Tories, but the tone gets warmer and more impassioned in the final chapter as he relates the first Reform Bill and its passage. At times I could just imagine strains of Land of Hope and Glory in the background and almost stood up and saluted!

So an interesting book which provides a very good Parliamentary history of Britain (tsk, people in the period and their conflating of England and Britain). Not really useful as a general history of the country, but in its place it’s both useful and informative. I’m very much struck by the last sentence though, which is wise and as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th:

Those who compare the age on which their lot as fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 1980

Does Terrorism Work?: A History

By Richard English

Rating: 3 stars

For what is a fairly short book (only about 260 pages, without endnotes etc), this took me a very long time to get through. I heard Prof English give a talk themed around this book at a literary festival and bought this book off the back of that. Unfortunately, I felt that the tone was very dry and difficult, especially in the introduction. English appears to be the sort of academic who’s lost the full stop key on his keyboard (I’m sure I found sentences that went on for about 15 lines!) but has an overflowing thesaurus. Someone who doesn’t like to use just one word when he can get away with ten.

In terms of the actual content, to answer the question “does terrorism work?”, he lays out his framework in the introduction, where he introduces four different categories: strategic victories, partial strategic victories, tactical successes, and the inherent rewards of struggle. He also discusses the different categories of people we could be talking about when we ask for whom it works. From the introduction, we then go into four chapter-length case studies of different terrorisms before the conclusion.

Of the four case studies, the one most interesting to me was the IRA chapter, as this is something that I grew up with and the ceasefires and end of violence happened as I was coming of age. With this, as with the other case studies (al-Qaida, Hamas and ETA) he looks at the historical context and then tries to place this into his strategic framework as developed in the introduction. There was a lot of interest here, especially in the chapter about ETA. That’s not something that I know much about, and it turns out that Spain is a much more complex country than I had realised.

The first part of the conclusion is spent doing thumbnail analyses over other terrorist organisations around the world, fitting them into his framework, but without the depth of the main case studies, and then he tries to come up with wider conclusions at the end. Unfortunately, a lot of this just comes down to “it’s complicated”, and I didn’t need 260 pages to tell me that!

However, there is value in the framework and the historical contexts. Especially in the modern rolling news agenda where especially Islamic terrorism is met with such hysteria, it was nice to see a more considered, academic approach that sets it into historical context and reminds us that whatever the media and politicians say, this isn’t unprecedented and there are ways to deal with it.

I liked that English was very clear from early on that although he was only considering non-state terrorism, he very much accepted that states can also indulge in terrorism, and that some of the responses to terrorist actions can be regarded as causing terror in their own right.

I would have liked to see chapters look at terrorism outside Europe and the Middle East, with more in-depth looks at terrorism in South America or South East Asia as I’d like to know if those differed in any great extent than the four case studies used. But within that context, I do think that the book is interesting and worth reading. I just wish someone would give the author a lesson in writing for people outside academia (or a better editor).

Book details

ISBN: 9780199607853
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year of publication: 2016

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There

By Sinclair McKay

Rating: 4 stars

This book acts as a social history of the activities of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the second world war. It becomes clear fairly early on that Mckay doesn’t have any technical knowledge and doesn’t even try to get across any of the technical aspects of ciphers and codebreaking, but that’s not the point of this book. If you want the technical details, then a book like Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret is probably a better choice. However, this book does look at the people at Bletchley and the lives they led during their time there. In this regard, it succeeds, with interviews from survivors and extracts from various documents in different archives.

Various aspects are discussed, from recruitment to Bletchley, and how that changed over the course of the war, to the way the work was apportioned and segregated between the various huts, to the famous social side of the Park. It’s well-written and makes for a very interesting and enjoyable read. McKay has done his research with his interviewees who all sound like a fascinating bunch, but with narrow knowledge (due to the secrecy at the site). McKay is able to draw the various accounts into a more rounded and wider account.

So quite a broad, rather than detailed, account of the work of Bletchley, but definitely fascinating without any jargon to worry the non-technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781845136338
Publisher: Aurum Press
Year of publication: 2010

Imaginary Cities

By Darran Anderson

Rating: 3 stars

This is a very difficult book to describe. The back cover calls it a work of “creative non-fiction”, which I guess is as good a place as any to start. It’s about cities that, by some definition, don’t exist. Whether that’s cities or buildings imagined by architects but never built; cities thought up by writers and poets; cities as they could or should be; or cities that have died.

The book is split into different sections, with short chapters within each section. To be honest, I found it difficult to pick up themes within the chapters, and even, at times, within the sections. Yes, you might get a section on utopia, and its evil twin dystopia, but then you get a section like ‘The Turk’ which just seems to flit from subject to subject without any unifying theme (although, of course, this may be more a failure of me than of the book). This makes it an odd read for me. It’s something to dip into every so often rather than something to read in large chunks with a unifying narrative running through it but I did find it somewhat unsatisfying. I’m not sure what it’s missing, but I do feel it’s missing something.

Still, I learned things about architecture and architects that I didn’t know. Now let’s see if any of it sticks.

Book details

ISBN: 9780992765590
Publisher: Influx Press
Year of publication: 2015

Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1990-2013)

By Paul Kirkley

Rating: 3 stars

The second volume of Space Helmet for a Cow takes up the story from where the first volume leaves off: Doctor Who has been cancelled and that looks like that. Talking us through the Wilderness Years, to its triumphant return and beyond, Kirkley retains the informal, chatty style from the first book that makes this as easy to read as that volume.

There is, however, a major issue with this volume, which Kirkley acknowledges in the introduction, is that this is all still comparatively recently. Doctor Who returned in 2005, that’s just twelve years ago, at the time of this review. There hasn’t been time for things to come out in the wash yet, so we still don’t have the full story behind Christopher Eccleston’s short time in the Tardis, or why Freema Agyeman left after just one year. And that just gets worse, the closer to the present day that we get. By the time we’re up to Eleven’s last series (and the afterword, that discusses Twelve’s first couple of seasons), it’s become just a glorified episode guide, with a ratings count. That’s not to take anything away from the work that Kirkley has put in, but I’d be much more interested in the second edition of Space Helmet Vol 2, that emerges in another couple of decades.

There’s still some good stories behind the scenes, and some running gags at the expense of former BBC director general Michael Grade (and Adric. I would say poor Adric, but, well, it’s Adric). But it’s not as essential a volume as its predecessor. And it could still do with an index.

Book details

ISBN: 9781935234210
Publisher: Mad Norwegian Press

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 stars

The idea of this book intrigued me – a history of private life. I was expecting a social history, of how families and homes have changed throughout history. This wasn’t that book. Instead Bryson uses the rooms in his home as a jumping off point for random dips into (almost exclusively British and American) history. As another review put, it’s mostly just a collection of entertaining random facts. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I do feel that there’s a missed opportunity here to write the book that I had hoped this would be.

So Bryson takes us through the kitchen and scullery (a chance to talk about servants and their relationships with their employers), the drawing room and dining room (talking about how dining and food have changed and comfort respectively), the passage (goodness knows), the bedroom and bathroom (a lot of pain here, as medicine, surgery and hygiene are discussed; disappointingly little sex) all the way up to the attic, which is an excuse to talk about Charles Darwin and in which Bryson tries to make us feel sorry for rich landowners because they get taxed. Diddums.

Bryson spends a lot of time with architects and big houses (unsurprisingly for someone who used to be president of the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England) and I did learn about the Gilded Age, a period in American history that I previously wasn’t aware was A Thing. But mostly, the collection of names, dates and facts went in one ear, briefly amused me and went out the other. I doubt I’ll retain very much knowledge from this book.

So, in my opinion, this book was a missed opportunity. It was entertaining enough, but not the book it could have been. On the other hand, that book is still to be written, and I’m ready to read it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784161873
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2010

Eureka!: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Ancient Greeks But Were Afraid to Ask

By Peter Jones

Rating: 3 stars

I found this a slightly odd book. It’s very “bitty”. It covers a lot of breadth, but with sections a short as a third of page, there’s very little in the way of depth. I often found myself wanting more information about a person, a topic or a war. On the other hand, the very breadth is very useful for someone like me who has very little knowledge of ancient Greece. If nothing else, the book got across the very fractured nature of Greece in this period very well. The way the city-states would constantly bicker with each other, and their shifting pattern of alliances as they sought to prevent one or the other gaining dominance.

For covering a large period of history, you’ve got to paint in broad brush strokes but it does feel like the dots could have been better connected here to make a more cohesive narrative. Still, there’s a lot of worth here, and the narrative voice is rather wry and occasionally throws in sarcastic asides for the reader.

Book details

ISBN: 9781782395164
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Year of publication: 2014

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

By Jared Diamond

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot in this book to wrap your head around. The basic premise tries to look at human history since the last ice age to determine the ultimate causes of why the shape of human history evolved as it did: why has Eurasia, and Europe in particular, dominated recorded history and spread and conquered so much of the world.

The answers that Diamond comes up with are interesting and thought-provoking, looking at geography and biogeography over “race”. His four basic conclusions involve the availability of suitable plants and animals for domestication; the orientation of the major axis of the continents and how this affects diffusion of both things (plants, animals, people) and ideas between and across continents.

Obviously, a book of about 450 pages can’t cover a subject this big in great depth, but the thesis seems compelling to a layman like myself, with its explanation of why Europeans were the ones to develop the guns and steel and bring germs to the lands they conquered. The book while being moderately academic in tone is still very readable and has lots of real-world examples. (However, it’s still one that I had to read moderately slowly, breaking it up with lighter reading material.) The major caveat that I have to admit is that I am a layman and although Diamond’s hypothesis makes sense to me, I have no idea what other ideas are in out there in the field, and how seriously this one is taken compared to others.

The book is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its publication and it would be interesting to see an updated edition to see how our understanding has changed in that time, thanks to developments in archaeology, genetics and anthropology over the last couple of decades.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

Ireland and India

By Michael Holmes

Rating: 4 stars

This book was a bit of an accidental discovery. I was on an adult education day course and talking to the lecturer during the break. He was Irish and I told him about my own Irish-Indian heritage, which reminded him that he had contributed to this book looking at connections and comparisons between Ireland and India. I was obviously intrigued and found a copy (say what you will about Amazon, between their own catalogue and their marketplace, there are few books that are impossible to find). I was a bit wary, since it’s obviously an academic tome and I’m not always great at reading that sort of work, but since I had some time over Christmas, I sat down and started reading.

The book is split into rough sections, the first looking at historical connections and later sections looking at more contemporary issues, whether that be political, economic or international and diplomatic.

The first few chapters, the more historically inclined, were amongst the easiest to read for me and it was interesting to read about Irish soldiers and their impact in India from the beginning of the East India Company right up to Indian independence. The elite political connections and the comparison of women in both independence movements and their status in both countries since were also interesting.

It was also interesting to read about the differences in both states. Obviously Ireland and India are very different in terms of size, population and economy but looking at how the two countries dealt with the trade union movement was interesting (in India, there isn’t a single overarching trade union federation (like the TUC) but almost one per party, and this fragmentation and political alignment has led to a weakening of the movement as a whole, unlike Ireland where a a single federation and things like national bargaining have led to stronger unions.

I thought that the chapter on Irish missionaries in India was probably the weakest. The author had some letters I didn’t recognise after her name and when I googled it, it looks like she was a member of a missionary order herself. This obviously gives her a particular bias and there was no mention of any negatives of missionary work in India, which I felt was a flaw (but then I’m an atheist, so I bring my own baggage as a reader)

The chapter I enjoyed the most was the one on the settlement of Indians in Ireland (a subject obviously very close to my heart) and one of the references actually led me to a whole book about Indians in Ireland and the Irish in India (The Irish Raj) which I intend to follow up on.

The chapter on women’s rights focused entirely on India. There’s no doubting the scale of the challenges there, but it would have been nice to mention some of the issues surrounding women’s rights in Ireland as well, particularly in terms of the woman’s right to choose.

The last couple of chapters were devoted international and diplomatic affairs, looking at how the two countries’ different foreign policies developed and comparing the Irish policy of neutrality with Indian non-alignment and also looking at missed opportunities for strengthening the connections between the two countries, as despite a shared history under the British empire and similar struggles for independence, bonds between Ireland and India are relatively weak. The book ends by looking at potential ways for these ties to be strengthened, as both countries have moved away from earlier policies of protectionism to more liberal economies and are more involved with international trade (although regional organisations tend to be the focus of that).

All in all, the book was really interesting, only falling occasionally into the dryness that makes some academic text almost unreadable. I would dearly love to see an updated edition, as this one is now 20 years old, and a lot has happened in both Ireland and India in that time.

Book details

ISBN: 9780861219384
Publisher: Folens
Year of publication: 1997

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