Books read – June through September 2013

Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800, by Charles H Parker. This is an introductory (270 pages) academic work, covering a number of topics: European and Asian empires, trade, population movements, ecological change, and cultural and religious shifts. Therein lies the problem, though no fault of the author’s – as an academic book it lacks the colour of popular accounts such as Charles Mann’s 1493 and Timothy Brooks’ excellent Vermeer’s Hat, yet as an introductory book, it lacks the depth of specialist works. Perhaps worth a look as a second or third book on the subject, but not a must-have.

 

Mythology, by Edith Hamilton. According to Wikipedia, this “is frequently used in high schools and colleges as an introductory text to ancient mythology and belief,” and I can see why. The – mostly Greek and Roman – tales within are clear and entertaining, and Hamilton provides invaluable context as to how they evolved over the centuries and in the hands of different authors. Recommended for anyone interested in the subject.

 

The Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson; translated by Jesse L Byock. The primary source underpinning so many of the Norse myths you’ve heard elsewhere, from Valhalla to Ragnarok (described in words that remain powerful, a thousand years on). Also recommended if you’re interested.

 

Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350, by Janet Abu-Lughod. Did you know that during the 12th and 13th centuries, the region around Troyes, France was a significant crossroads for trade? Buoyed by encouragement from the local counts, the Champagne Fairs of Troyes and the nearby towns served as the meeting ground between merchants from Flanders and their Italian counterparts, bearing spices and silksfrom the East. Local manufacturers benefited, too – cloth from the region was marketed as far afield as Constantinople. After a heyday of  circa 100 years, the Champagne Fairs withered away again:  the French monarchs consolidated their control over the region and bullied foreign merchants; improved shipbuilding technology let the Italians sail directly to Flanders; and the Black Death wreaked havoc in Italy. The Champagne Fairs are just one of the case studies in this fine (and surprisingly accessible) work of economic history, which sweeps through Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and finally China. Recommended if you’re interested in its topic; this Amazon review offers a nice alternative summary.

 

Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700, by Lauro Martines. A worm’s-eye view of its subject, focusing on the experiences of ordinary people – soldiers, villagers, townspeople, and their unhappy collisions. The antidote to any view that early modern warfare was clean or glorious.

 

The Cold War and the Making of the Modern World, by Martin Walker (Amazon link goes to what I’m pretty sure is the same book under a different title). Worth a look as a  solid, readable narrative history, with some interesting colour. For instance, take the stimulatory effect of the Korean War on the post-WW2 Japanese economy:

 

[Shotaro Kamiya, president of Toyota] arrived in the USA on the day the Korean War broke out, desperate to reach a licensing deal with Ford and save his struggling company, then selling barely three hundred trucks a month. He failed; Ford were not interested. When he arrived disconsolately back in Japan, he found it already bustling as the base for the exploding American war effort. Kamiya was greeted by a flood of urgent orders from the Pentagon for 1,500 trucks a month. The profits from the trucks financed Toyota’s expansion into passenger cars. After the Korean War, Toyota never looked back.

 

The Vinland Sagas, translated by Hermann Palsson and Magnus Magnusson: A rather slender chronicle of Norse voyages to the Americas. Not as readable or as meaty as The Prose Edda; most readers can safely skip this book. I found it useful mostly for its insight into the Norse mentality, from its very first line (“There was a man named Thorvald, who was the father of Eirik the Red. He and Eirik left their home [in Norway] because of some killings…”) to the description of first contact between Norsemen and Native Americans:

 

On their way back to the ship they noticed three humps on the sandy beach just in from the headland. When they went closer they found that these were three skin-boats, with three men under each of them. Thorvald and his men divided forces and captured all of them except one, who escaped in his boat. They killed the other eight and returned to the headland, from which they scanned the surrounding country. They could make out a number of humps farther up the fjord and concluded that these were settlements.

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