The week in books

January 15, 2009

America: Empire of Liberty by David Reynolds, professor of international history and fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge. Allen Lane, £30.00, ISBN 9781846140563

"Tracing the long dialectic between America's virtuous self-image and its sometimes rapacious actions is a mammoth task but one Reynolds carries off well. Whether he is surveying the often sordid business of America's westward expansion or the development of the postwar Marshall plan - 'the most unsordid act in history', according to Winston Churchill - the tension between empire and liberty is never far from Reynolds' mind."

Edward Luce, Financial Times

Byron in Love by Edna O'Brien, adjunct professor of English literature, University College Dublin. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £12.99, ISBN 9780297855538

"Women have been making fools of themselves over mad, bad and dangerous Lord Byron ever since Lady Caroline Lamb sent him a clipping of her pubic hair. O'Brien is the latest in a line of less extreme but equally devoted female biographers to have been seduced by the dastardly milord's embodiment of what she calls the 'destructive, dazzling, dark and dissonant'. She 'was immediately drawn to him', she says ... Byron in Love, which might better be named O'Brien in Love, will squeeze its way into a library already groaning with books exploring those conundrums that O'Brien has just noticed."

Frances Wilson, The Sunday Times

Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the 18th Century by Jeremy Black, professor of history, University of Exeter. Continuum, £25.00, ISBN 9781847252432

"As Black's impressive new book demonstrates, the American Revolution was a singularly contingent event. It might never have happened, and that provides food for counterfactual thought ... This is a little book crammed with large ideas and Black consolidates his reputation as one of the finest interrogators of 18th-century history. Historians are sometimes obsessed with neatness: this always makes it easier to conjure up an attention-grabbing thesis. Black, on the other hand, is willing to recognise a mess when he sees one."

Jonathan Wright, The Independent on Sunday

Paranoia: The 21st-Century Fear by Daniel Freeman, Wellcome Trust fellow, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and Jason Freeman. Oxford University Press, £9.99, ISBN 9780199237500

"The essay takes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, tabloid-newspaper fear-mongering and a spiffy virtual-reality paranoia test, and ends by heartily recommending cognitive behavioural therapy. Still, I couldn't help wondering whether the book protested too much. Paranoia, the authors intone, 'permeates our society, more than we've ever suspected and possibly more than ever before'. Doesn't that sound a little, er, paranoid?"

Steven Poole, The Guardian.

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