The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

Eugene Rogan (2015)

An excellent history of a rather forgotten and mis-understood piece of First World War history. This is a subtle and balanced review of the precursors and consequences of the war for the Ottoman lands, and puts a lot of history that we think we know well into perspective. Given how much of recent history has been shaped by these events – the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and even in some ways the recent attempted military coup in Turkey – it deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 12 October, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Nathaniel Philbrick (2000)

What was it like to be a sailor in the mid-nineteenth century? This book provides an evocative and compelling story. From the way in which Nantucket Island was once the centre of the world’s most valuable commercial trade, to the privations and hardships associated with whaling, the detail and contextualisation is impressive – and that’s before we even get to the main events, a whale turning and sinking the ship hunting it, the crew’s subsequent wandering the eastern Pacific in small open boats, their resort to cannibalism to stay alive, and the aftermath of their rescue. On the way we also encounter some wonderfully out-of-the-way islands, as well as a time when people – even sailors familiar with the waters – could reasonably (if inaccurately) fear murder and savagery on the various Pacific islands.

4/5. Finished Sunday 4 September, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

Randy Shilts (1987)

It’s hard to sum-up this book: part history, part in-depth analysis of gay society in the 1980’s, part polemic against the Reagan administration. Randy Shilts lived through it (and eventually succumbed himself), and he wonderfully captures the frustration, the fear, and the final sense of creeping inevitability as more and more in the core social circle fall away.

It’s also a fascinating study of how governments listen (or not) to their own scientists, as well as of the political in-fighting between science groups and the ways in which reality is so often shaped by the perceptions of those reviewing the evidence: obvious in hindsight, perhaps excusably resisted at least in the early stages. There are plenty of examples of more recent “epidemics” that actually were not as devastating as they were at first warned to be (SARS and nvCJD spring to mind) – which isn’t to excuse the quite despicable inaction later when things became clear. There’s a lot here to be learned about how to respond to news of impending devastation.

One advantage of writing this review late is that I can include recent events: the exoneration of one of the main villains of the piece, Gaetan Dugas, who was reviled as “patient zero”, deliberately spreading the epidemic more rapidly and widely. It turns out that, whatever Dugas’ actions, they didn’t give rise to as much secondary infection as was thought when Shilts wrote his book, and just goes to show how science is always a provisional activity.

5/5. Finished Thursday 4 August, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Henry Marsh (2014)

A deeply felt and insightful – if sometimes over-personalised – view of medicine, neurosurgery, and working within the UK NHS. It’s at times terrifying: some cancers are benign, some are malignant, but anything that recurs will basically kill you no matter how well you treated it the first time. It also doesn’t reassure to think that neurosurgeons hone their skills by operating, and by failing – and this by definition leaves damaged patients behind. But it’s also comforting to see the professionalism and skills on display, and to learn the surprising variety of perfectly treatable conditions from which one might suffer. Not for the fainthearted, though.

4/5. Finished Saturday 23 July, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler (1940)

A classic of “fictional history”, focusing on the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1930’s. The protagonist, Rubashov, struggles to understand what’s happening to him as he is imprisoned, set up for a show trial, and eventually executed.

Koestler brilliantly captures something that often seems inexplicable in the history of the period: why did so many of the main characters collude in their own destruction? He makes a convincing case that they were captured by their own revolutionary logic: having professed the supremacy of the revolution, the creative use of obviously unjust violence, and the subordination of the individual, they found themselves unable to argue or act in their own defence, and even found solace in performing one last act that aided the revolution even as it consumed them. Still inexplicable, but also somehow admirable that individuals could become so devoted to a cause, no matter what one thinks of it.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 20 July, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)