A thoroughly mystifying book, full of well-drawn and often beautiful images, of which I could make neither head nor tail. Is this a halfway house inha...moreA thoroughly mystifying book, full of well-drawn and often beautiful images, of which I could make neither head nor tail. Is this a halfway house inhabited by souls between reincarnations? A simulated reality gone wrong? What Purgatory is really like?
I own the book. Maybe I should try reading it again. If I do, I'll modify this review as appropriate afterwards.(less)
A fanatical, mean-spirited little book, intermittently amusing, in which the author proposes on purely circumstantial evidence that the popularity of...moreA fanatical, mean-spirited little book, intermittently amusing, in which the author proposes on purely circumstantial evidence that the popularity of the James Bond books and films is due to the consolation they provided to (mostly conservative) Britons traumatised by the loss of the British Empire and their country’s economic collapse after the Second World War.
In support of this absurd thesis, Simon Winder rewrites some recent British and world history, dismisses the rest of it as a catalogue of unremitting savagery and exploitation, and wildly overuses the adjective ‘mad’ and its synonyms (a favourite is ‘zany’) when describing anyone or anything conservative or upper-class. He is also fond of using the word ‘cynical’ in those connexions. Yet nothing could be madder or more cynical than Mr. Winder’s own take on history and his loony-Left political judgements. I am no Tory, and neither am I British, but I can diagnose a case of envy when I see one.
This is history and social commentary written by a movie nerd who should, frankly, have stuck to film reviews. By the way, he doesn't think much of the Bond books or films either, except for From Russia with Love and the movie version of Goldfinger.(less)
This is an action-packed overview of an era when the Dark Ages were just becoming the Middle Ages. The author does a heroic job of helping the reader...moreThis is an action-packed overview of an era when the Dark Ages were just becoming the Middle Ages. The author does a heroic job of helping the reader distinguish between the various mailed thugs — Frankish, Saxon, Norse (or Norman) and English — whose unedifying deeds form the basis of the action. Even so, the parade of Ottos, Henrys, Godfreys and the rest tends to blur into an undifferentiated mass as you keep reading. The same goes for the various revolting characters who passed through the turnstile of the papacy at this time, until we come at last to Gregory VII and Urban II, who were, in the terminology of 1066 and All That, genuinely ‘memorable’ (if not very likeable).
The events which form the matter of Holland’s narrative are appalling. The notables of the time nearly all came to power through murder and bloodshed. If they inherited their positions, they were obliged to defend them with their lives. Betrayal was a constant in politics, brutality was the very stuff of daily life, women and the poor were fearfully exploited, and might was indubitably right. The life of a Norman noble, Holland tells us, was one of constant, deliberately courted danger and violence — hunting, fighting, war. It was a kind of artificial selection, a culture designed to weed out all but the strongest, the most capable and the most brutal.
Meanwhile, though, Christianity with its message of peace and humility was also growing in strength, spreading into parts of Europe from which it had long been gone (Spain) or had never been before (Sweden), and commanding such implicit and universal belief that the thuggish nobles who performed these dark deeds were often hysterically guilty about them, constantly seeking absolution from the Church and subjecting themselves to absurd penances. It probably made them worse in the long run.
Aside from the case Holland makes for the sociopolitical effects of millenarianism at the time, I found the book somewhat short on thematic coherence and argument. There is a narrative here about how church and state came to be separate in Europe — the book begins with a ‘preface’ describing the famous confrontation between Henry IV and Gregory VII at Canossa — but Holland doesn’t really pursue the argument as far as he might. There is also a narrative about the effect of Christianity on politics in the Age of Faith, but this, as you might expect, is somewhat incoherent. It doesn’t spoil the blood and thunder, though.
One insight presented in the book stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Like most people today, I've tended to look upon castles as fortified enclosures built for defensive purposes, now outmoded and rather romantic in their associations, their evocation of knightly tournaments and fair damsels and acts of chivalrous derring-do. Holland explains that in fact, the first castles were not defensive but offensive structures — the means whereby local and regional strongmen (or lords, if you prefer) could garrison the lands they seized with hired thugs (or knights, if you prefer), denying the use of the fields and forests to the common people and enabling the imposition of vampiric taxes and expropriations. The lowering wooden palisade (later stone-walled) on the hill was, for mediaeval men and woman, the locus of terror and evil.
Castles, in short, were among the earliest instruments of the process of dispossession and enclosure that, over long centuries, concentrated more and more of Europe’s resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people, until it was halted (temporarily) by the French Revolution eight hundred years later.(less)
Genuine classics, nearly all of them, from Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death' to Ursula K. Le Guin's 'The On...moreJust what it says on the tin.
Genuine classics, nearly all of them, from Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death' to Ursula K. Le Guin's 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'. Special treasures include C.L. Moore's 'Black God's Kiss', L. Sprague de Camp's 'Nothing in the Rules' and 'That Hell-Bound Train' by Robert Bloch.
There are a couple of absolute turkeys, but they too are classics: a typical crypto-Fascist sex-and-violence sword-and-sorcery romp from Robert E. Howard ('The Valley of the Worm'), a long apologia for dualism disguised as a short story by H.P. Lovecraft ('The Silver Key') and a typical piece of tripe from the infinitely overrated Jack Vance, 'Mazirian the Magician'.
A longer introduction, telling us something of the provenance of these stories, would have been welcome.(less)
I like a good rock bio — Robert Shelton on Dylan, Jimmy McDonough on Neil Young, Keith Richards on himself. I even like a good bad rock bio, like Anth...moreI like a good rock bio — Robert Shelton on Dylan, Jimmy McDonough on Neil Young, Keith Richards on himself. I even like a good bad rock bio, like Anthony Scaduto's poison-pen-portrait of Mick Jagger, or Albert Goldman's minutely detailed dissection of Elvis.
But this is the pits.
Christopher Sandford appears to have researched his subject simply by reading a lot of newspaper articles and watching a lot of television. Everything he gives us is at least secondhand, more often third-hand. He evidently knows and cares nothing for music: we learn nada about McCartney's working technique in the studio, his amazing multi-intstrumental abilities or his songwriting (except that he knocks them off in minutes and sometimes dreams them, which we knew already) and barely scratches the surface of what we want to know. Barring onstage performances, which Sanderson obviously watched after the fact on video — and which anyone else could watch just as easily — there are no descriptions of McCartney or the Beatles at work whatsoever.
Music apart, Sanderson doesn't know much about anything else, either. He seems to think Peruvian flake is a kind of cannabis. Many biographical details about McCartney and his associates, including the other three Beatles, are not given precisely as one remembers them, yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. The women in Paul's life remain mysterious. Jane Asher is a cipher; the remarkable mutual affection and interdependence between Linda Eastman and her second husband are described but no attempt is ever made to explain it; Heather Mills is portrayed straightforwardly as a brassy, gold-digging slut — but even here, we are given no idea how a canny operator (and legendary womanizer) like Paul came to have fallen for such an essentially unattractive creature.
Early in the book, Sanderson relates a story about McCartney musing over the reams of analysis to which his friend John Lennon has been subjected, and how people all seemed to think they knew John. 'But they don't know me, do they?' concludes McCartney. This story is so placed in the book as to present the reader with the implication that, by the time they have finished reading, they will know McCartney. Well, they won't.
They wil, however, have been given the impression — entirely erroneous — that John Lennon was a bit of an also-ran in the Beatles, whose true creative and professional engine was Paul McCartney. This, of course, is preposterous — and pointless. It would not have detracted one iota from Paul's own towering achievements to have acknowledged the equivalent genius (and undeniable cultural primacy) of his erstwhile creative partner. Though perhaps, considering how Sanderson trivializes the artistic genius of his hero, it is probably just as well.
I'll give this book two stars on the basis that I did learn at least one interesting fact I didn't know before: Linda's family wasn't always named Eastman; they took that name after migrating to the United States two generations previously. The original family name was... Epstein.(less)
It is 1942, and Biggles has vanished on a secret mission in Monaco. Algy, Ginger and Bertie set off to look for him, but without the boss to keep them...moreIt is 1942, and Biggles has vanished on a secret mission in Monaco. Algy, Ginger and Bertie set off to look for him, but without the boss to keep them in line they soon go off the rails, strumming guitars, swilling wine and dallying, believe it or not, with women. Ginger falls in love with a girl who gives him shelter. Algy stalks a woman in a blue shawl for absolutely miles. Bertie reveals unsuspected musical abilities as well as an entirely believable familiarity with pre-war Monegasque society. All seems lost, but then Biggles appears, reminds them of what they've been missing by doing some ace flying in his underpants, all wet and hunky, and they return to England firm friends again. Really, really firm friends.
Oh, all right. The four stars are contextual, of course, but this really is one of the best Biggles books. There are the usual implausible coincidences, impossibly lucky escapes and a positive Olympus of deorum ex machina, but it also contains affectionate and knowledgeable descriptions of Monaco and the surrounding Alpes Maritimes (Johns was always at his best as a writer when describing scenery, particularly desolate places) and yes, there are actually women participating in the story as characters. The French setting seems to have obliged Biggles and crew to deviate from their usual Kipling-at-Sunday-School code of conduct. I loved the Biggles books as a small boy and wanted to see how they held up when read as an adult. Mostly they don't, but I actually enjoyed this one more than I did as a child.(less)
A brilliant sequel to Wolf Hall and, like it, a Man Booker prizewinner.
Thomas Cromwell is now older and richer, and like his mentor Cardinal Wolsey be...moreA brilliant sequel to Wolf Hall and, like it, a Man Booker prizewinner.
Thomas Cromwell is now older and richer, and like his mentor Cardinal Wolsey before him, he has made himself indispensable to his king, Henry VIII. He has done a great deal of good and of evil, and he is the most powerful man, save Henry, in all England.
But there is a woman who regards herself as more powerful, though it is he, Cromwell, who set her in the seat of power: the Queen, Ann Boleyn. But her power depends on her ability to produce a royal heir.
This is the story of her downfall, and its effects on England, on the King and his courtiers, and not least on Cromwell himself. It is told in lucid, apparently effortless prose that conceals years of scrupulous research and the author's deep, clear-eyed insight into human nature.
This, and its predecessor, are among the best books I have read for years.(less)
Note to self: stop reading ghost stories. Once you've lost your belief in the supernatural, they stop working.
This collection of Kipling supernatural...moreNote to self: stop reading ghost stories. Once you've lost your belief in the supernatural, they stop working.
This collection of Kipling supernatural shorts isn't bad as such things go, and of course there's always his magnificent writing to enjoy, quite independent of its content. The stories vary in quality from the Boys' Own Paper juvenilia of 'The Mark of the Beast' and the tedious nonsense of 'The Phantom Rickshaw' (whose theme strongly suggests that Kipling must once have had the experience of being pestered by a woman who wouldn't take no for an answer) to the perfectly-realised 'They', an affectionate tribute to the beauty of southeastern England, the claustrophobic stiff-upper-lip nightmare of 'At the End of the Passage' and the psychologically insightful, if implausible 'The Wish House'.
On the whole, this will disappoint Kipling fans, since it contains so much work of indifferent quality. If you want Kipling at his best when tackling supernatural themes, try Puck of Pook's Hill. One story, 'The Lost Legion' did give me a gooseflesh moment, simply from the vividness of description; but for all that, it's not really a very good story.(less)
A very assorted bag of stories. How well they evoke the Dying Earth of Jack Vance I cannot say, since I have never had the opportunity to read those b...moreA very assorted bag of stories. How well they evoke the Dying Earth of Jack Vance I cannot say, since I have never had the opportunity to read those books. I found this in a library and picked it up because I am a great fan of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which he says was inspired by Vance's Dying Earth milieu.
As stand-alone tales, these stories work more or less well. The best, for me, was 'The Laughably Comic Tragedy...' by Tad Williams, a really brilliant horror story. Others I liked were 'The Good Magician' by Glen Cook, 'The Return of the Fire Witch' by Elizabeth Hand, 'The Last Golden Thread' by Phyllis Eisenstein and 'An Invocation of Curiousity' by Neil Gaiman. Easily the worst story was 'The True Vintage of Erzuin Thale' by Robert Silverberg. Having helped himself to Vance's 'Big Planet' conceit for Lord Valentine's Castle, he gives us a Dying Earth that seems in no way different from his Majipoor from that novel.
On the whole, I was not very impressed by this collection. Maybe I should read Vance himself. If I can find him.(less)
At the front of Wolf Hall is a list of characters. There are fifty of them. By the time I'd finished the book, every one, even the most minor, had a d...moreAt the front of Wolf Hall is a list of characters. There are fifty of them. By the time I'd finished the book, every one, even the most minor, had a distinct face and a personality. Although the action is narrated exclusively from the principal character's point of view and we are always privy to his thoughts, we are nonetheless enabled to form our own opinions of all the characters. These may not always agree with Cromwell's view of them — or even, perhaps, the author's.
This is literary mastery of a very high order.
Of course, the principal characters in this story are well known to us. Biographies and contemporary portraits of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII of England, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragorn and Cardinal Wolsey all exist and are familiar to many people, particularly in the UK, from their history schoolbooks. But in these cases, the virtue of Mantel's writing is that she disposes of our preconceptions regarding these famous actors on history's stage and turns them into real, complex, conflicted people.
The story rattles along at breakneck speed. Though it is all history (there are times when Mantel even tells you what letters Cromwell wrote, and to whom, on a particular night, and you can bet your life those letters really were written, and still exist somewhere), she manages to create tension, suspense and instants of surprise and revelation despite the reader's foreknowledge of the course of events (though it is probably not advisable to look up the history of the period in too much detail while reading the book).
Period and place are brought to life in loving, often gritty detail. As for the historical and political context, I don't think any author could have managed it better.
Frankly, I don't see how I can praise this book highly enough, so I shall try to repay my debt to Wolf Hall by having a quiet word with Wendy, the lady whose one-star review is at the top of the Goodreads page on this book with — at this time — no less than 184 Likes.
Wendy clearly speaks for a large constituency: readers for whom Wolf Hall is too difficult, too literary and/or too idiosyncratic to follow. All bar one of her complaints about it point to deficiencies, not in the book, but in the reader. Is that a new concept to you, Wendy?
I'll take the exception first: Mantel's idiosyncratic use of the third-person singular male personal pronoun. Many readers and reviewers — not just Wendy — have pointed out that it is at times confusing to determine exactly who 'he' refers to in the text. Well, that's true; sometimes you mistake the reference in a sentence and have to re-read with the right attribution in order to grasp the meaning. Still, it is evident (to an attentive reader) from about Page Three onwards that in any unusual context 'he' in this book always refers to Thomas Cromwell. Once you have understood that, the difficulty is easily resolved.
Some readers want to be spoon-fed, and find that having to use their brains on a work of fiction interrupts the chocolate-flavoured trance in which they like to read. Others understand that having to work a little at the text makes them pay better attention and hence embeds them more deeply in the vicarious experience being created by the author. This is not a book to be read while half asleep.
As for Wendy's other complaints: Mantel's use of the colon is always stylistically correct and the tension and terseness lent to her prose thereby is very much in keeping with Cromwell's character (these are Cromwell's thoughts and experiences we're reading, although the book is not narrated in the first person). And Mantel eschews quotation marks when what is expressed is not an actual speech but a thought. Wendy's failure to perceive the distinction created by this (very common) literary device means she never really understood what she read in this book; and thus she was able to write, in her review, that
After reading numerous reviews, even from people who loved the book, that said that most of the characters remained distant throughout and that they didn't learn anything more about Cromwell after reading 500+ pages
In fact, you learn everything it is possible to learn about Cromwell, from his taste in food to his love for his various children to his religious beliefs, from to his approach to politics to the childhood trauma and deprivation that drives him in his rise to success. Mantel's drawing of Cromwell is one of the most complete and detailed portraits of a man I have ever read in fiction. As for the other characters, see my comments at the beginning of this review.
Critical praise for this book has been positively clamorous, so I wonder which readers Wendy is referring to in the passage quoted above. I suppose she's talking about people who picked it up expecting a genre historical fantasy full of dashing romantic heroes and heroines with endangered bodices. I have no doubt that devotees of the Georgette Heyer/Antonia Fraser school of historical fiction will find Wolf Hall heavy going; but this book isn't for eyes-wide-shut readers. Those who read with their eyes wide open, on the other hand, are in for a treat.(less)
Tom Wolfe's style seems to grow more hysterical with every book. He sprays the page with italics and exclamation marks as though wielding a pressure-h...moreTom Wolfe's style seems to grow more hysterical with every book. He sprays the page with italics and exclamation marks as though wielding a pressure-hose. Coupled with his obsession about being up-to-the-minute in every possible way (as regards fashion, popular culture, slang and just about everything else), he gives a very good impression of an overcaffeinated tabloid journalist. Under it all, though, he writes conventional novels of morals and manners in the classic nineteenth-century style — the sort of novels Dickens, Trollope, Henry James and George Eliot wrote.
Here is another of them. I found it exciting and satisfying, if at times rather exhausting, to read. Its principal obsession, as with all novels by Tom Wolfe, is status and the crazy things people do and say in order to gain it, establish it and prevail over others in competition for it. His portrayal of human status competition is ethological rather than anthropological, giving us the Naked Ape in all his simian nudity. Yet he shows us that old-fashioned human values — even moral values — are not incompatible with the imperatives of biology.
This book is set in Miami and explores tensions among the different ethnic groups in that definitively multicultural city. It tells a great story. It has a genuine and very likeable hero, a heroine who learns life's lessons the hard way, a storybook villain, a perfectly-executed plot and an ending that manages to leave you feeling satisfied and fulfilled even though the Big Question remains not-quite-answered. It is a masterly performance by a novelist at the height of his powers. Despite Wolfe's manic style, this is the best-crafted and most satisfying new work of fiction I have read since Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.(less)
This is a lucid and, I think, honest memoir. It was a fast read, with a minimum of back-checking required to follow names and places in the story. Ms....moreThis is a lucid and, I think, honest memoir. It was a fast read, with a minimum of back-checking required to follow names and places in the story. Ms. King (if it is really she and not a ghostwriter) writes efficiently and communicates her feelings well, though no-one would accuse her of having literary talent in the commonly understood sense. Imagine a very bright, practical and dedicated high-school senior writing a personal essay for class: that's the style.
I was slightly disappointed (especially in the light of Cerys Matthews's back-cover endorsement) to find that Ms. King does not actually share many songwriting, producing or performing secrets with her readers. That is her privilege, however, and I must say it did not spoil the story for me.(less)
It would be gratifying to report that the last Culture novel is a triumph, but maybe that would be an ending too much like fiction. In fact, The Hydro...moreIt would be gratifying to report that the last Culture novel is a triumph, but maybe that would be an ending too much like fiction. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata is probably the least successful instalment of the series. I refrained from reviewing or even awarding it stars here on first reading. Having just re-read it, I find my original opinions reinforced.
The Hydrogen Sonata is verbose, repetitive and often clumsily written. Banks always had a tendency to over-write, especially in his science fiction, but this was normlly held in check, possibly by judicious editing, and was partly justified (or at least excused) by the fine imaginative and stylistic effects he produced. Here the effects just aren't there.
The story, too, is thin. The Gzilt, a humanoid race of equivalent technological advancement to the Culture, are about to Sublime (transcend four-dimensional reality and effectively disappear from physical space) when a message is received that places the whole project in doubt. Some of the great and good among the Gzilt move to suppress the news. This involves some serious skullduggery, which attracts the attention of the Culture.
A group of Culture Minds (ships) sets out to discover what was in the message, circumstantially (and somewhat involuntarily) assisted by a young, female Gzilt musician who has a lead to the only person who might know its contents, an incredibly ancent Culture citizen named QiRia. The reader may ask why the Culture decides to get involved in the first place, and having done so, why it chooses to place its own assets — and numerous innocent Gzilt — in grave danger in order to learn the contents of the message. Banks realises the question will be asked, but his answer — simply that it is the 'right thing to do' — is not very convincing.
The Gzilt musician, who plans to Sublime along with nearly every other Gzilt, has set herself a final 'life-task', that of playing an ugly but technically impressive piece of music, the Hydrogen Sonata, on a famously unplayable instrument. To be able to play the instrument, she has been surgically augmented with another pair of arms. If there is some symbolic connexion between this task and the actual plot, I am afraid I did not spot it. The whole conceit seems rather contrived and pathetic, but serves to furnish a title for the novel.
A long, tedious sequence set in a sand-garden in the middle of a desert and some rather wordy erotic passages further extend, and detract from, what would probably have been a much better book at half the extant length.
One thing I did find interesting is that Subliming, which Banks had presented hitherto as the culmination of civilisational attainment, is shown here as a strictly temporal process with no ethical or 'spiritual' dimension to it at all. This makes a kind of sense, but unfortunately results in Subliming becoming nothing but a kind of scientific or technological attainment, unsatisfactorily described and sketchily presented. There is nothing about the Gzilt that suggests to us why they should be judged capable of Subliming — and when the big moment does finally come, we learn absolutely nothing about the process; we don't even get much of a visual description.
Requesciat in pace, Iain Menzies Banks. You gave us much pleasure, and much to chew on, with the Culture, your most glorious creation. Now that you have attained your own personal Sublimation, we – Remnanters or Scavengers in the terminology of The Hydrogen Sonata – must make what we can of your legacy. It is a great and glorious hoard, but this is the poorest of its treasures.(less)
Tom Sharpe has guts, because guts are what it takes, at the age of 74, to write a book that that gets most of its laughs by exploiting the frailties a...moreTom Sharpe has guts, because guts are what it takes, at the age of 74, to write a book that that gets most of its laughs by exploiting the frailties and horrors of old age, heart disease, terminal geriatric wards in frightful English hospitals, catheters and malfunctioning cardiac monitors.
Aside from that, there are the usual Sharpe comic tropes of kinky sex, drunkenness, obese women, ferocious dogs and architectural devastation. All very welcome, as usual.(less)
Many reviewers of The English on Goodreads seem to be more concerned with the author, Jeremy Paxman, than with the actual book. I suppose this is one...moreMany reviewers of The English on Goodreads seem to be more concerned with the author, Jeremy Paxman, than with the actual book. I suppose this is one of the hazards of being a well-known TV face. Since I don't live in the UK and don't watch television, I'd barely even heard of him before I picked up this book, so you won't find any prejudice in this review.
As the poet Burns suggested, it is hard to see ourselves as others see us. This is true of nations as of people, and Paxman's struggles to describe and define his compatriots are understandable. He comes to no grand conclusions, apart from noting that, while much that is external has changed since the end of the Victorian era, the English are still recognisably the same people they always were. As a student of history and a foreigner who knows the English pretty well, I think this is true, even obvious.
The charm of a book like this, though, is not in its conclusions but in the tapestry of fact and suggestion woven by the author out of his considerable erudition (as well as, doubtless, a great deal of research). I learnt quite a few interesting, amusing and surprising things while reading this book, even though there weren't any shattering revelations or insights to be gained from it. I enjoyed the writing; its friendly, conversational tone wears its learning lightly. As for its politics, which appear to have infuriated a number of reviewers on this site, I found them generally fair-minded and unobtrusive, though the attempt to be 'gender-inclusive' falls rather flat and probably won't satisfy ardent feminists either.
The one glaring omission, as far as I could see, was music. Paxman does refer, once or twice, to the enormous effect England has had on contemporary popular music; in this regard it is second only to the USA. However, apart from speculating that the English weather, which tends to keep people indoors, may have something to do with it, Paxman says little about the subject. Surely any study of the English people and character must try to explain how the English, not much known for their music before the second half of the twentieth century, suddenly came to produce so much brilliant and inspired music. But perhaps this is a task for a specialist.
On the whole, I found this book absorbing and interesting. It peters out at the end, but for most of its length it is an excellent read. Just don't expect to learn anything new or definitive about the English national character from it.(less)
This isn't the kind of book you can honestly call a good read – not unless, perhaps, you had a particular taste for the subject. It's thick and square...moreThis isn't the kind of book you can honestly call a good read – not unless, perhaps, you had a particular taste for the subject. It's thick and square and crammed with facts, not always as digestibly presented as they might be. The prose is not terribly elegant. And whatever your views on democracy, you will almost certainly, at one point or another, find yourself bemused, repelled or angered by what the author has to say.
As a 'good read', this book deserves two stars at best.
Yet this almost impossibly learned history of democracy presents a fresh and challenging way of looking at its subject, and is passionately convinced of democracy's vital importance to mankind. As an educational and thought-provoking read, it deserves a full five stars. There have, apparently, been very few histories of democracy; the last, we learn, was written in 1874, when democracy was still a relatively new development in modern Western society. So Keane has a clear field and plenty to talk about; and he exploits both to the full.
Keane rejects the arguments for democracy that invoke abstract ethics, divine will or Utopian views of human societies and relationships. He debunks the idea that democratic states are inherently peaceful. He shows that democratic institutions do not necessarily produce fair or effective governments. And he insists that nationalism and restrictive definitions of 'the people' have nothing to do with democracy.
His final conclusion is that democracy is necessary because it is the only human institution that allows men and women live their lives free of bullying and coercive violence, that controls the excesses of power and the hubris of the mighty; but he also points out that democracy is always under threat, never fully realised, never fully delivers on its promises and is constantly in need of repairs and modifications to adapt it to the prevailing conditions of time and place. There is no complete or ideal form of democracy, he says; democracy is always a work in progress.
The case he makes for this view of democracy is powerful; it convinced me. I learnt a lot from this book — which traces the growth of democracy back to such unlikely roots as the Code of Hammurabi and the Cortes of Léon — and perhaps it even changed my views a little. Though a convinced democrat, I am something of an elitist and have always interpreted democratic equality as equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; this book has made me think twice about both those attitudes.
Uncertainly and provisionally — that is to say, in the spirit of the book itself — I hereby award it four stars.(less)