Review – The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’ by Samer
The Syrian war has produced a great deal of writing, but little of real permanence. Most of its derivative works are journalistic accounts and dry geopolitical analyses. It has yet to produce a new novelist, poet, or memoirist of note, rather than simply providing new material for old hands. Some day, a great book about the Syrian civil war will be written – something that draws deeply from the conflict and sets the tone for a changed nation, region, and world. Such an era-defining conflict will have that effect. Continue reading →
Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading →
The Syrian uprising is on the verge of its fifth anniversary. To a great extent it has become the essential conflict of our times. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the prospect of peace, regardless of some apparently encouraging signs from the United Nations, remains a chimera. Much – and understandably so – has been written about what Syria has become, and what led it there: the murders, the torture, the senseless slaughter, the almost inconceivable devastation.
There is no shame in this; it is necessary and I have done more than my fair share. But sometimes this analysis is insufficient. Sometimes it is better to write from an unconventional perspective; sometimes what is missing from the equation is a greater sense of historical understanding. Continue reading →
Arguably one of the greatest achievements of 20th century historical scholarship, Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is a tremendously comprehensive study of peasant society in the comté de Foix in the Middle Ages. Both the region and the book are unique – the former because it stood almost alone in the 14th century as a home and haven for the Albigensian heresy, and the latter because it benefits from an effectively singular source: the Fournier Register, which comprises records kept by a particularly enterprising bishop – Jacques Fournier – that detail the progress of his prosecution of the Inquisition in Languedoc. Continue reading →