Heretics and Heroes. The renaissance and reformation were times in which the inhabitants of Western Europe, both ordinary and illustrious, broke free from much of the intellectual darkness that cloaked their world during the Middle Ages. Book number six of his popular Hinges of History series, focuses on the two forces of nationalism and religion, and touches on how these powers shaped Western Europe between the 1400s and early 1600s. Cahill puts a human face on many of the people of this time who have been mythologized in one way or another, such as the philosopher Erasmus, Martin Luther and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Making of Modern Japan. Japan is often hailed as one of the most powerful non-western countries and this masterwork of history shows how it came to be known as such. Jansen’s tome sets out to create a detailed account of the past 400 years of Japanese history, which includes the periods of the Tokugawa Shogunate as well as the Meiji Restoration. The book discusses the influences of neighboring Asian cultures as well as European visitors, ultimately culminating with the complicated relationship with the US through the 20th century. At times isolating themselves from the rest of the world, but eventually opening up, focusing on technological advancement and industry, Japan, by the 1980s found itself near the top of the global economic food chain.
Cleopatra: A Life. Great biographies do an excellent job of painting a picture of the environment and times in which their subject lived. Stacy Schiff’s 2010 biography of Cleopatra does just that. Most compelling for me was the biographer’s description of ancient Alexandria, with its glorious temples, bustling marketplaces and people of all sorts. Alexandria was a cultural epicenter around the first century B.C. Many of the sources Schiff relies on for her research are primary ones, created in biblical times. These sources, whether Cicero or Plutarch, or a variety of others, all meticulously footnoted in the biography’s notes, depict a Cleopatra that readers will be surprised with.