Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Two great books

Reading bad books is miserable, but it's fun to review them. Good books are the opposite. I read more of them, but review fewer. I feel compelled to set out the flaws of bad books, to warn others. But a review of a good book succeeds simply by winning it some new readers. So here are some brief notes on books I've loved.
Noel Malcolm's Agents of Empire: Knights, corsairs, Jesuits and spies in the sixteenth century Mediterranean world (Allen Lane 2015 £30) is one of the most astonishing books I've ever read, and I think it will become a classic. It is a kind of microhistory that traces the family history of the Brunis and Brutis who hailed from present-day Albanian territory. But unlike most microhistory, it isn't telling the story of everyday folk. These people were involved at the edges of grand affairs of state, engaged in the Battle of Lepanto and the Council of Trent. There's also fascinating material about the mediation between empires at the frontier between Christendom and Islam, and between the great powers in the Mediterranean and beyond. I suspect this kind of history will be imitated, but I doubt others will rise to Malcolm's level. The breadth of knowledge and depth of research is awesome, but it is organised by a powerful intellect. He moves easily between the minutiae of diplomatic language schools and shrewd judgments on the Mediterranean balance of power.

I expected to dip into this book, but I was  utterly enraptured and read every page avidly. 

R. Taggart Murphy Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford University Press 2015 £20)
Japan brings out the worst kind of punditry. There are so many colourful anecdotes about its history, culture and economy that journalists can spin a good story without much analysis at all. The first half of Murphy's book is an excellent concise history of Japan. But it really comes alive in the second half. He writes confidently and knowledgeably about all facets of Japan, and is particularly sophisticated in his understanding of economics and finance. But his ability to explain cultural phenomena like gender relations and stay-at-home youth that impressed me most, because it stood out from anything else I've read on the subject. He is also excellent—and scathing—about the 'Japan hands', the coeterie of U.S. 'experts' who advise on all matters Japanese, who promote each others' work and reinforce each others' prejudices. 

I'm a bit of a Japanophile, but this is one of the few books I'd recommend unreservedly. Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons is another, particularly on culture. And Richard Koo is strong on the Japanese economy. I'm also a great fan of Japanese literature; Natsuo Kirino is my current passion. Other recommendations would be appreciated. 

My great fiction discovery is Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels. They sounded a bit too 'misery memoir' for my taste, but I'm glad I gave them a go, for they are fabulous. Wonderfully well written and wickedly cutting, their style is oddly detached from the sadness they describe. I've only read the first two so far. In the second volume our hero is off his head on drugs for most of the book, yet still evinces our sympathy and manages a good deal of dry humour. Wonderful, and one of the few really excellent recent novels I've found. I have enjoyed few of other the recently-hyped novels I've tried.

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