Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

How did a small group of islands off the western coast of Europe, of almost no interest or importance on the world scene, suddenly become the most powerful nation on earth, whose empire stretched so far that the sun never set on it? This is the premise of Niall Ferguson’s book, Empire: HowBritain Made the Modern World.

That Britain became incredibly powerful is common knowledge, but in this huge work, Ferguson’s aims to tell us just how that happened, because it seemed so very unlikely. Just a few hundred years ago, Britain had no power and was essentially a nation of pirates. Yet this piracy turned into a series of conquests that brought a full quarter of the world’s landmass and population under the Queen’s control. It is a fascinating story told in a fascinating book.

There has been a lot of criticism over the author’s apart right-leaning historical perspective. I honestly found the book fair and reasonable, despite my own strong left-leaning political views. Sure, empire is an ugly thing… and Ferguson does not deny that. He gets into the horrors of British imperialism as well as any leftist historian. However, he does argue that the British Empire was, in some ways, a force for good in the world – and he’s correct in that assessment. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Taste of Conquest

Michael Krondl's book, The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice does exactly what the name suggests - it tells the stories of three cities (Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam) and their roles in the spice trade.

He takes us on a tour of the world in the present time, meeting people and talking about spice. But interwoven with this narrative of his own journey is the vast history of spice trading between Asia and Europe. He looks at how the three cities got involved in spice trading and how it changed them and the world, before finally each of them fell from power.

The book is utterly engrossing, although by the third section is does tend to get a bit repetitive. Of course, the story of these three cities is intertwined but I felt the author could have avoided so much repetition. His description of flavors and smells, too, is great but at times a little over the top.

All in all, a fantastic cuisine-focused history text.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

I haven't been reviewing much here lately. Since getting back from holiday last month the main reading that I've done has been for my own next book. I've been reading Allen Ginsberg's letters and journals, as well as other related Beat Generation books. My own book will be about Ginsberg's travels, and one of his most famous journeys was to India. On his way there, he read Rudyard Kipling's classic, Kim. I decided to get myself a cheap Kindle version and give it a read.

Kim is the story of a young boy whose parents - Irish immigrants to India - died when he was young, leaving him to be raised on the streets of Lahore. He is a street-smart kid who is neither wholly Irish nor Indian, and can pass for either when he needs.

In the course of the novel, Kim searches for his identity while becoming the chela (helper) of a Tibetan monk on a long quest. Kim finds himself mixed up in the Great Game, which was the struggle for influence over Central Asia by Britain and Russia, while crossing India with his monk in search of a mystical river. Kim attends a British school whilst also maintaining his friendships with locals, and studying Buddhism under his monk.

Most interesting is that the book is a vivid portrayal of life in India during the nineteenth century. The vast and diverse land is explored in extraordinary detail along with its disparate cultures. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Gulliver's Travels

On my recent journeys through Europe, I have been re-reading Gulliver's Travels, a classic from the 1700s. I found it on Amazon for free and added it to my Kindle.

Gulliver's Travels is presented as a memoir in four parts, with each part telling an odd journey taken by Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon and captain of a series of ships. He keeps getting stranded or wrecked at sea and ending up on mysterious islands.

The book is a satire both of human nature and of the genre of adventure fiction that was so popular in that era. In the societies Gulliver finds, the people share many traits with humans and Gulliver mocks them by showing how absurd we can be.

I read this book long ago and of course has seen many adaptations but had forgotten how rude it could be. In several scenes Gulliver's toilet habits are depicted in detail, including urinating on a queen. Elsewhere, he is stripped and used almost as a sex toy by lusting giants.

The book is tremendously funny and insightful, and I regret reading it in this era where all the world is known, as it would be more fun to have read it hundreds of years ago when people genuinely didn't know if there were giants or flying islands.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

I'm currently back in the U.K. for a short visit and whilst here I've been reading a few books and enjoying the summer sun. One of those books was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which I always thought I'd read. I suppose it's one of those books that's so famous one assumes one has read it...

As it turned out, I hadn't read it at all. I was riveted almost from the start and proceeded to read the book in less than a day - which is surprising, given that I'm a slow reader. I spent a beautiful summer's afternoon enjoying the story unfold from the mouth of the riverboat captain, Marlow, who goes in search of Mr. Kurtz, a trader who's venture into the heart of Africa has seen him ascend to the level of a god among the natives.

I really enjoyed this book and what it says about European colonialism as well as the human condition.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley

I'm back after previously suggesting I might give up this blog... Well, as it turns out, I shall use my new blog for new books, and this blog for when I read older books. 

I'm currently on holiday and recently I stocked up for my travels by visiting Amazon and downloading a number of new Kindle books. As well as some more recent publications, I also picked up the classics for either free or a nominal price. One of these was Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow

Chrome Yellow is a satirical novel set in a big English country house, following the convention of the country house novel. It features a range of characters - each of them a type of person - who come to the country house in question, called Crome. The book is made up of dozens of short chapters in which the protagonist, Denis, meets with each of the other characters. 

The book was based upon a real house and many of the characters were likewise based upon people Huxley knew there. Last year I read his biography but I cannot recall exactly who these people were. In any case, I recall them being rather pissed off at Huxley's portrayal of them. Indeed, these are not flattering portrayals. The book is very funny partly because it is so mocking of these wealthy types. It is clear Huxley is mocking himself, too.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Reviewing Elsewhere

Hey folks.

Just a note to let you know that I'll be posting my book reviews somewhere new. You can keep on sending me books but I won't be posting reviews here. I'll be posting them at this book review website.