April 15th, 2012


Links I found interesting for 15-04-2012


April Books 4) A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

I've had mixed luck with Karen Armstrong's books, but this is pretty readable; it's a potted history of theology in the three major monotheistic religions from early Old Testament times to the present day. I'm not an expert in the field, so didn't spot any inaccuracies, but basically she is able to convey fairly succinctly what key figures and traditions believed, and why we should care. She is particularly good at spotting contemporaneous and similar developments in the last 500 years or so in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; and I had not previously encountered the idea that the Young Turks were influenced by the post-Shabbetai Donmeh tradition. On the down side, there are a small number of figures who make Armstrong erupt in bile about their personal shortcomings - Martin Luther is an early and rather startling example - which distracts and detracts from the objectivity of her writing in 95% of the book. It's a bit of a dry subject but not a bad introduction to it.

April Books 5) Paradox Lost, by George Mann

I have already snarked about the quality of the prose of this book; apart from that fairly major consideration, my only other objection is that it doesn't really deliver on the Miltonian reference of the title other than by having a major character called Angelchrist. The story is a workmanlike time travel tale with alien incursions, split between a rather vague future London and a more precise 1910 setting. In the audio version, Nicholas Briggs does a fantastic job of injecting life into Mann's prose (though I find his Eleventh Doctor too demotic). All but completists can skip the dead tree version, the audio is a bit better.

April Books 6) The Empire Stops Here, by Philip Parker

A fascinating travelogue around the ruins of the Roman Empire's frontiers, starting at Hadrian's Wall and ending at Septem, now the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which was incidentally also the last Byzantine outpost in North Africa. Parker manages an admirable evenness of tone through some very different bits of territory, including debatable mounds in central Europe as well as the rose-red city half as old as time. Having finished Gibbon just a few months ago, I found Parker a useful adjunct; geographical clarity, especially at the margins, is not Gibbon's strong point, and Parker anyway has over two centuries' worth of further research and excavation to draw on. The geographical focus, however, does mean that Parker has to leap back and forth in the time line depending on when interesting things happened on the bit of frontier he has reached, and I would have found this confusing if I had not had Gibbon's narrative in my recent memory.

Parker makes the interesting overall point that we should not see the boundary fortifications as the border where Roman power stopped; the Empire's power was projected in both directions, and those beyond the limes might still be under Roman control (and in later times, those within the limes might not be). He concludes with admiration for the initial success and relative longevity of the Roman project, and sadness that it is unlikely to be repeated (which is a whole other debate, I think). There are some great evocative descriptions of ruins as perceived by today's traveller and resident, and some nice historical and archaeological points (eg the soldiers found dead in their fortress in Germany, killed by raiders but never buried); in general it's an excellent book.

It is let down by the fact that the numerous lovely photographs are presented out of order and without cross-referencing to the relevant pages, and also (I know I keep going on about this) by the use of endnotes, so that relevant and interesting information is buried hundreds of pages from the text to which it refers. I wouldn't mind if this was merely a question of providing precise citations, but the notes have a lot more narrative material. No publisher should do this and no author should tolerate it from their publisher. In these days of advanced technology, there is no excuse for not having proper footnotes on each page relating to the text on each page, as Gibbon was able to do in the eighteenth century. Accept no excuses and no alternatives.