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42.  The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

The fourth Wallander book.  (I've read the third, The White Lioness, before).  I'm not intentionally reading them in order, but the library has been especially obliging - I'm just going with whatever's on the shelf when I'm there.

This one starts out a bit slow, with Wallander on long term sick leave after having to kill someone in self defence at the end of the last book, and contemplating giving up the police altogether.  But then an old acquaintance is killed, after having come to Wallander to ask for help investigating his father's suspect "suicide", and he just can't resist.  The last 2/3 are un-put-downable.

43. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

She was on The Daily Show promoting this, and I'd had a few drinks so instead of sensibly sticking it on my wish list, I ordered it as soon as the closing credits rolled.

Albright is Czech by birth, and her father was in the Czechoslovakian government in exile in London during WWII.  He was the voice of the government in exile, and the Resistance, broadcasting regularly on the BBC.  Before and after the war he was the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia.  She herself was a child at the time, but when he died she inherited a garage full of his papers, plus as US Secretary of State she had made a lot of contacts in modern Czechoslovakia, such as Vaclav Havel.

This is in part a potted history of Czechoslovakia in the period 1937-1948, and part a memoir of her family's experiences in that time, not only her own immediate family in exile in London, but also those who stayed behind, who mostly died in Terezin and in the deportations to points east.

(Albright did not know until she was nearly 60 that her family was Jewish.  Before the war, in England, her parents, who were completely non-religious, converted to Roman Catholicism for reasons she is never able to get to grips with, but comments interestingly that such an act would have been unthinkable after the war).

Unfortunately I got halfway through the book but it was too heavy to take on holiday with me, so my experience of it was kind of disjointed.  While it wasn't as completely awesome as she made it sound - from the interview, I'd been expecting a lot more of her own commentary on events described in the book from the point of view of someone who had been in difficult political situations herself - I still found it interesting.  I knew very little about Czechoslovakia in that period and she tells the story well.  A lot of the reviewers on Amazon (I know, don't read the comments.  Anywhere.  Ever.) were put off by the personal stuff, but I found that added to the story rather than detracting from it. 

Definitely worthwhile.

44. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

I've only got round to reading one of Holland's books before, Persian Fire, and although I can't recall a think about it, I remembered that it had been informative and good reading, so when I heard about this one I ordered it from the library right away.

Holland explains the rise of Islam in the context of the two empires bordering Arabia at the time - the late Roman (Byzantine) and the Sasanian Persians.  He demonstrates that Islam did not arise in a vacuum (the Koran demonstrably was not written in or near Mecca, but somewhere much nearer Palestine).  There's some really fascinating parallels between the first two centuries of Christianity and the first two centuries of Islam.

Most of the material about the late Roman world is not news to me, what with my Masters being in the early medieval period, but the stuff about the Sasanians was new and fascinating.

Basically, both empires imploded because of the bubonic plague pandemic that started in 540 and had recurrent outbreaks for the next 150 years, so there is an argument that this is what made the spread of militant Islam possible.

I did know that the first major outbreak of plague that we know about was in late antiquity, but somehow, in all my reading about the Black Death, didn't know any more than that.  The effects were similar to the 14th century in that labour became scarce, causing social mobility and rising wages, but even more political instability than the late medieval version.

I'm no longer in a position to know how accurate this all is, but I found it fascinating and raided the bibliography in a big way.  I am regretting getting it from the library and will probably buy a copy when it comes out in paperback (I assume it will, his stuff is generally popular enough that it does). 

July reading

7 books, 2 non-fiction, 5 fiction - about par for the course.
All but 2 came from the library, and I acquired 2 books in that time, so not helping with the to-read pile at all.
Which is threatening to take over the bedroom.


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