The week in books

March 5, 2009

The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons, PhD candidate in sociology of religion, Monash University. Bloomsbury, £20.00, ISBN 9780747594000

"The theory of permanent Muslim-Christian enmity, though it flourishes in the caves of Tora Bora and parts of the American academy, was long ago exploded by the historians. In this clear and well-written book, Jonathan Lyons delves into all sorts of musty corners to show how Arabic science percolated into the Latin world in the Middle Ages and helped civilise a rude society ... The only small blemish in this fine book is that Lyons has printed a beautiful page of al-Biruni's Arabic treatise on mathematics back to front, so the text can only be read in a mirror."

James Buchan, The Guardian

The Man Who Outshone the Sun King: Ambition, Triumph and Treachery in the Court of Louis XIV by Charles Drazin, lecturer in film studies, Queen Mary, University of London. Arrow Books, £8.99 ISBN 9780099468288

"If visitors to Versailles find it grandiose and overblown, they can blame Nicolas Foucquet. The humble tax-collector turned economics minister to the king of France had, at Vaux-le-Vicomte, shown the power of architecture to buttress personal grandeur ... Drazin's colourful and sure-footed biography takes this intriguing figure out of the shadows and paints a court where high culture and low cunning always danced in step."

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Civilisation: A Monumental Achievement by Jonathan Conlin, lecturer in history, University of Southampton. Palgrave Macmillan, £12.00, ISBN 97818445700

"Conlin's succinct and elegant monograph describes the phenomenon in both width and depth (though oddly, he doesn't delve into the publishing history of the book, which sold in its millions, both here and in the US, and which after 40 years still ranks in Amazon's top 100,000). He defends (Kenneth) Clark from the accusation of Whiggishness, pointing out that the series tells not one progressive story, but 13 different stories. Yes, a more accurate title might have been 'Western European High Culture, as seen by an art historian from his liberal humanist perspective', but one can't see that cutting the mustard in the Radio Times, and Clark acknowledged cleanly that he didn't have the space or time to look at the civilisations of other continents - civilisations whose worth he fully appreciated."

Rupert Christiansen, The Spectator

The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II by David Welky, assistant professor of history, University of Central Arkansas. Johns Hopkins University Press, £23.50 ISBN 9780801890444

"Moguls, yes. Dictators, not so much. Which is the short way of saying that David Welky's long and dutiful study of Hollywood's relationship with the larger political world in the years prior to World War II is a lot less melodramatic than its title implies. That's because Welky has the academic's tendency to get lost in the archives, stressing material only a professor can love. That's too bad, because there is a powerful story buried in this mound of material."

Richard Schickel, The Los Angeles Times.

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