The week in books

March 26, 2009

Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice, university reader in philosophical theology and fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge. Chatto and Windus, £18.99, ISBN 9780701173418

"(Soskice's) deft handling of a travel yarn and her feel for the culture-bucking momentum of the twins' lives makes the dream a compelling one. Unavoidably, her story slightly loses its drive following the discovery of the palimpsest. As Agnes and Margaret fight for, and gain, scholarly respectability, as scholars bicker over the text and the twins triumphantly found the Presbyterian Westminster College in the teeth of Cambridge sexism, the romance of Sinai seems too distant."

James McConnachie, The Sunday Times

Beauty by Roger Scruton, research professor, Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Oxford University Press, £10.99, ISBN 97801995595

"This is not an attempt to define beauty. Rather, it asks whether there are correct judgments to be made about it - reasons why we should prefer Titian's Venus of Urbino to Boucher's Blonde Odalisque or, indeed, to photographs of porn stars having sex ... Scruton has moments of great insight and clarity in this attractively slim volume, but he is less than deferential to the buzzing and gurgling body. He seems to find it distasteful. For him, beauty is not connected to animal joy, but to human reason. I'm not at all sure he has it right."

Sebastian Smee, The Observer

Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past by Neil Gregor, reader in history, University of Southampton. Yale University Press, £25.00, ISBN 9780300101072

"Gregor is a thoughtful and sure-footed guide, relying on solid archival research, marshalling his facts well and remaining cogent in his arguments ... he makes few concessions in his writing for the lay reader, yet he manages - occasional lapses notwithstanding - to present his sometimes challenging subject matter in a style that should appeal beyond his core audience ... (the book) should serve as a useful guide to the problems faced by those modern societies that are making the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy."

Roger Moorhouse, The Independent on Sunday

The Ruin of the Roman Empire: The Emperor Who Brought It Down, The Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It by James J. O'Donnell, provost, Georgetown University. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25.00, ISBN 9781861979353

"O'Donnell's narrative concentrates on the eastern empire. He holds the great autocrats responsible for a sequence of disastrous decisions, theological and diplomatic, which led to the contraction of Byzantium until Constantinople became an autumnal golden apple which, in 1453, Mehmed II had no difficulty in plucking. This severe assessment spawns blithe predictions about what would have happened had Theodosius dumped the theology or Justinian his profligate use of treasure to retrieve an empire which even Belisarius' generalship could not secure. It thus does small honour to the agility with which, over eight centuries, the Byzantines fought to conserve their corner of the Mediterranean, despite never having sufficient legions to play the old Roman zero-sum game: join us, or get licked."

Frederic Raphael, The Spectator.

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