Book reviews: The Cookbook Library | A People’s History of London | Afghanistan

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Michael Kerrigan looks at the week’s new literary releases

The Cookbook Library

by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky

(California, £34.95) *****

“I have written for the citizen who wishes good health and a clean life rather than debauchery,” wrote the author of De honesta voluptate et valetudine (‘Of Honest Indulgence and Good Health’, 1474). Subsequent writers weren’t quite so sure: AW’s Boke of Cokery (1500) may not have been quite orgiastic, but there’s surely a suggestion of glamour in its “Stewe after the Guyse of Beyonde the Sea”. There have been cookbooks for as long as there have been books at all. Never simply about cookery, they’ve incorporated everything from food science to ethics, agriculture to lifestyle choice. All that finds acknowledgement in Willan and Cherniavsky’s absorbing ragout of serious history, beautiful coffee-table book and practical kitchen guide.

A People’s History of London

by John Rees and Lindsey German

(Verso, £12.99) ****

From William Longbeard’s Rebellion to the Occupy Movement, this book chronicles a thousand years of radical action in England’s capital: the Peasant’s Revolt, the Putney Debates, the Gordon Riots, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, Cable Street, the anti-Vietnam marches, the Battle of Wapping. Refugees from Garibaldi and Marx to Trotsky and Freud were to find a haven in what the authors call the “Migrants’ City” (though they’ve less to say on the recent rise of “Londonistan”). The city’s prosperity seems to grow and grow – regardless of recession; so too, apparently, does its I’m-all-right-Jack complacency. This book is a timely reminder that there is a very different side to London, every bit as energetic and exciting in its way.

Afghanistan

by St John Simpson

(British Museum, £12.99) ****

Unconquered in over 2,000 years? If the familiar half-truth had been true, Afghanistan’s cultural history wouldn’t have been anything like so interesting. As described by St John Simpson, the country bears the imprint of innumerable occupations. We’ve seen ourselves how incomplete a hold these outside occupiers may maintain, yet both the Persian and Hellenistic empires left their mark. Buddhism was brought in from India before the irruption of the Arabs, bringing Islam from the west. Prior to the colonial era, visitors didn’t see tribal barbarism but civilization and splendour; a land of mosques and palaces, rich mines and fertile countryside. Whoever died here in the forgiveness of Allah, the Iranian traveller al-Tha’alibi said in the tenth century, “is simply transported from one garden of paradise to another”.