The week in books

June 26, 2008

Night's Black Agents by Daniel Ogden, professor of ancient history, University of Exeter. Continuum, £25.00, ISBN 9781847252302

"The real disappointment of this book is less its faint whiff of the seminar room than the sense that Ogden has felt inhibited in his scholarship. Nowhere is this more evident than when he moves beyond a consideration of the literary source material to an analysis of humbler records: papyri from the Roman period, preserved in the sands of Egypt, and inscribed with a whole multitude of spells. Like the hauntingly realistic funerary portraits found in the Fayyum, or the bills and letters extracted from the rubbish tips of Oxyrhynchus, these are especially invaluable for the window that they open on to what so often, in ancient history, remains frustratingly hidden: the everyday."

Tom Holland, The Daily Telegraph

A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East by Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies and vice-principal (research) at King's College London. Public Affairs, £20.00, ISBN 9780297853121

"Unlike many critics of the Bush administration, Freedman does not believe the policymakers he is criticising are evil. There are no real villains in his book ... But there is little doubt that Freedman has been left aghast by the incompetence and hubris of the Bush administration. He notes with astonishment that, faced with a choice of enemies, the US seems to have ended up in a fight with almost everybody and is 'beset by enemies on all sides'."

Gideon Rachman, Financial Times

Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War by Chris Bellamy, professor of military science and doctrine and director of the Security Studies Institute, Cranfield University. Macmillan, £30.00, ISBN 9780333780220

"Stalin is often charged with personal responsibility for a great intelligence failure ... In Absolute War, Bellamy disputes this view. 'Stalin had been fooled', he writes, 'but it was a failure of political interpretation' - of Hitler's true intentions - not a failure of intelligence ... Bellamy tells a story: a complex, swift-moving narrative that weaves together old and new facts and dispels some myths."

Mark Harrison, The Times Literary Supplement

Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford, lecturer in history, University of Cambridge. Yale, £25.00, ISBN 9780300118964

"What he (Stephen Alford) has produced here is something different: an old-fashioned, cradle-to-grave biography of the most important and long-lived of all Elizabethan ministers, the queen's secretary and Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley. It is a classic example of history written to the highest standards of professional scholarship but also given a style and subject matter that make it an exciting experience for any intelligent reader ... ".

Ronald Hutton, The Independent

The Qur’an: A New Translation by Tarif Khalidi, professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, Penguin Classics, £25.00

“Khalidi wants the reader to enjoy the experience of reading the Qur’an. He wants to communicate the majesty of its language, the beauty of its style, and the ‘eternal present tense’ of its grammar. But he also wants the reader to appreciate the Qur’an’s unique structure, how the language changes with the subject matter, how it swirls around and makes rhythmic connections. He wishes to show how each of the seven tropes of the Qur’an (command, prohibition, glad tidings, warnings, sermons, parables and narratives) registers a change in the style of its language. A lofty ambition, but one he pulls off with some success.”

Ziauddin Sardar, The Guardian

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