The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola
This is the third volume in the Rougon-Macquart series. It is perhaps the least satisfying I’ve read. As a backdrop it covers the food markets of Paris (Les Halles). The description of the cheese shop is good.
I found one of the main characters Florent Quenu rather hollow and could not really understand his motivations. Also I found the role of Claude Lantier rather strange. He appears almost as a narrator, appearing continuously in many scenes throughout the book. Despite is seems that he doesn’t really take any part and his presence is never really explained. He is almost like a chorus, fine for Sophocles but not necessarily good in Zola.
I read that it is useful as a historical document describing Les Halles at the time.
World without End: the Global Empire of Philip II by Hugh Thomas
I got this in Blackwells as part of my summer reading. Partly because I remember reading the author’s history of the Spanish Civil War.
It is the third volume in a trilogy describing the Spanish empire as it stretched from Central and South America, the Caribbean to the Philippines. As expected it was well written and authoritative. It taught me a number of things I had not previously understood. The Spanish empire reached an impressive scope and size quite early, by the mid 16th century. Especially it seems that in Central America (eg in Mexico) Spanish authority, economics and culture (eg religion) quickly gained an ascendancy. Yet the indigenous cultures were not insignificant before their conquest.
Perhaps the best chapter was the one on the postal services. It is interesting just how connected the empire was. Another noteworthy point was how the Philippines communicated with Spain via America, rather than around Africa.
Though the empire seemed well run and economically efficient and lasted for several centuries, in the end Spain itself became increasingly a cultural and economic backwater. For example, the Enlightenment was not very active in Spain, though this is perhaps true of many catholic countries (except France). A final question is to explore the reasons for this, which are not completely clear.