Culture Night at Charlie Byrne’s!

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Culture Night 2011 is upon us, and Galway hosts a variety of events across the city on Friday 23rd, including a night of literature and fun at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. Local authors who have been published in the last year will read from their work in the shop, and a great night is in store for all. Space Invaders gallery will celebrate its first year in the Cornstore on the same night, so Middle Street is the place to be on Friday! Vinny Browne will be broadcasting his Arts Show on Galway Bay FM from the shop, capturing the atmosphere and the great readings from the best of the west. Drop in and stay a while – and buy a book or two.

For all the events of the night, please click on the following link.

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Book Recommendation time!

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I simply have to get this out there now considering we have only got four copies of the book; Charlie Byrnes bookshop have “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmuid McCulloch in hardback for €15. The fact that I am giving away my paperback copy is completely unrelated I might add, but this is a great chance to get the best one-volume history of Christianity for less than half-price, and an opportunity to enjoy the work of one of the best contemporary historians at the very peak of his powers. Give the shop a call or e-mail and we will sort you out!

Book Review: The Borgias and their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert (via Cerenity Now)

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The bestselling “The Borgias and their Enemies” by Christopher Hibbert is looming large on my reading list, but as I haven’t got their yet, here is an excellent, balanced review to pique your interest. I’d be interested to hear any other opinions out there; I’ve enjoyed Hibbert previous work, so here’s hoping!

Book Review: The Borgias and their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert Christopher Hibbert writes like an experienced academic–self conscious, solid and consistent prose, unadorned by rhetorical bouquets and ready to get the job done. While his skills are respectfully utilized, it is not his writing that keeps the reader engaged. Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the Borgia dynasty and also known as Pope Alexander VI, is the source from which interest in this book is propagated.  Between his own history and that of his … Read More

via Cerenity Now

Over The Edge New Writer Of The Year Longlist

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Last night Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop hosted the announcement of the Over The Edge New Writer Of The Year Longlist. Seventy-five poets and writers of fiction from Ireland and beyond must now wait for the decision of competition judge Elaine Feeney to find out whether they have made the shortlist. The shortlist will be announced in one week’s time, at the August Over The Edge Open Reading at the Galway City Library on Augustine Street on Thursday, August 25th at 6:30pm. Good luck to all!

Sponsored by Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Cllr. Fidelma Healy Eames, and others.

Find out who made the longlist here: http://overtheedgeliteraryevents.blogspot.com.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund De Waal

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Every chapter enthrals with Edmund de Waal’s account of his family history via the legacy of the netsuke collection, the tiny Japanese ivory carvings and, wrapped around these precious objects, the lives of Family Ephrussi, wealthy Jewish bankers who had amassed untold riches as grain merchants in Odessa in the nineteenth century before establishing themselves in Vienna. De Waal, a renowned ceramicist and authority on Japanese art, takes the reader on a journey through art and history in an effort to discover the link between his ancestors and these beautiful, tactile objects.

 This is more than just a memoir or family history, it is a commentary upon the meaning of art in everyday life, and how profound a connection can exist between the physical and the aesthetic or emotional. The netsuke are but a small part of the art collected by the Ephrussi, their value is small in comparison to the Impressionist paintings purchased by Charles Ephrussi in late nineteenth century Paris, but they provide a thread that meanders through generations of wealth, power, refinement, and horrific, rapid destruction on a heartbreaking scale.

De Waal’s tale is a long and complex one. It dances between Odessa, Vienna, and Paris as the Ephrussi join the Rothschilds amongst the financial elite of Europe. Charles D’Ephrussi, freed from responsibilities in the family empire, begins to establish himself at the pinnacle of the Paris art world, and is at the heart of the Japonisme movement – the interest in Japanese art that swept across Europe in the 1870s. He was a patron of Manet and Renoir, friends with Proust, and owner of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts magazine. It was he that purchased the netsuke and appreciated the joy that comes from touching such craftsmanship. On a whim, they are gifted to a newly-married cousin in Vienna, and their role changes from the public salon of Charles, to the private dressing room of Baroness Emmy Von Koromla in 1899.

Neither Vienna nor Paris proves to be a pleasant home for Jewish families in the period leading up to or after the Great War. Anti-Semitism is engrained in European society, and the disastrous Habsburg war effort hits the Ephrussi family finances hard. The Anschluss with Germany has an even more profound effect. It is difficult for both the reader and the author to discover the fate of his family and the beloved netsuke during these dark years. Perhaps De Waal’s greatest ability is his capacity to plumb the depths of his own horror and anger, yet remain focused on the journey he has undertaken. The netsuke survive the carnage, and remain in the family, but there is so much more to tell.

The Hare With Amber Eyes deserves to be introduced and recommended instead of being summarized. Firstly, it is very difficult to do so, and secondly, it is unfair to future readers to signpost them on the way ahead. I found it very moving and well-crafted, but overwhelming at times. It is an unusual book; extremely honest and open, with a tremendous knowledge and appreciation of art and life, but sometimes it is hard to view these events with equanimity, or with anything more than sadness. This is definitely one not to miss for lovers of art and history, but it is much more than a nostalgic memoir of temps perdu, it is a story of survival and rebirth.

(Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop)

Free book!

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Yes I know, this is a bit of a gimmick, but I don’t care! I have two copies of a very good book: A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years  by Diarmuid MacCulloch (review to follow at some stage) and any subscriber (there’s the catch) shall have a copy posted to their door if they answer the following question correctly:

True or False: Albert Einstein was once offered the Presidency of Israel. He declined saying he had no head for problems.

As more than half the entrants will answer correctly, a winner shall be chosen at random. Best of luck to all!

Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels

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Erast Petrovich Fandorin is a fictional 19th-century Russian detective and the hero of a series of Russian historical detective novels by Boris Akunin. A philologist, critic, essayist, and translator of Japanese, Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels have made him one of the most widely read authors in Russia.The first novel was published in Russia in 1998, and the latest was published in December 2009. More than 15 million copies of Fandorin novels have been sold as of May 2006, even though the novels were freely available from many Russian web-sites and the hard-copies were relatively expensive by Russian standards. New books in the Fandorin series typically sell over 200,000 copies in the first week alone, with an unparalleled (for mystery novels) first edition of 50,000 copies for the first books to 500,000 copies for the last. In Russia, the Fandorin series rivals The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in popularity. The English translations of the novels have been critically acclaimed by, among others, Ruth Rendell.

Akunin describes in The Winter Queen how Erast Fandorin was orphaned at the age of nineteen. He never knew his mother, and his father died bankrupt, leaving only debts. Fandorin had to abandon his education at Moscow University and was forced to enter the police force as a clerk. Since the events in The Winter Queen take place in the spring of 1876 (when Akunin says Fandorin is twenty), this places his birth some time in the year 1856. Further hints at Fandorin’s ancestry are given in another novel, Altyn Tolobas, one of four novels set in the present day and featuring Fandorin’s grandson Nicholas, where Akunin writes of how Captain Cornelius von Dorn, a German hussar, entered Russia in ca. 1680. Erast Fandorin represents the 8th generation counting from Cornelius, the German name von Dorn having been Russified to Fandorin in the 18th century.

In The Winter Queen, Fandorin falls in love with a seventeen-year-old girl, Elizaveta, whom he meets while he is investigating his first case. On their wedding day, she was killed by a bomb in a package addressed to Fandorin himself. At the time of the explosion, Fandorin was out pursuing the person who delivered the bomb and thus miraculously escaped without physical harm. The trauma of losing his bride leads to a lifelong slight stammer in Fandorin and a premature greyness at the temples.

In The Turkish Gambit, Fandorin is charged with the capture of a Turkish spy during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Upon his return, he requests to be stationed in a remote post, and becomes second secretary to the Russian ambassador in Japan. His adventures in Japan are detailed in the second part of The Diamond Chariot and in Jade Rosary Beads. In Japan, he saves the life of the fallen yakusa Masa, who becomes his manservant as a token of gratitude. He learns martial arts, including ninjitsu, and trains in them every day with Masa. In The Death of Achilles Akunin describes how Fandorin returns to Russia, only to find his old friend General Mikhail Sobolev murdered. Fandorin enters the service of The Governor-General of Moscow, Knyaz Dolgoruki (a fictionalized version of Valdimir Dolgorukov).Fandorin rises from the rank of Collegiate Registrar to that of Collegiate Counsellor over the years 1876 to 1891 (ranks XIV and VI in the Table of Ranks, respectively).

In The State Counsellor, set in 1891, Fandorin is accused of the attempted murder of the Governor of Moscow. After he clears his name, Fandorin is offered the job of Oberpolizeimeister but declines, instead resigning from public service and becoming a private investigator. He then leaves for America, studying engineering at M.I.T., in 1895, as told in Jade Rosary Beads. In The Coronation, Fandorin returns to Russia in time to prevent an international scandal from occurring during the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. In 1905, Fandorin protects the Trans-Siberan Railway from Japanese saboteurs during the Russo-Japanese War.

Allusions to the fate of Fandorin are made in Altyn Tolobas. Late in life Fandorin marries again and has at least one son, Alexander, who is born in exile in London in 1920, his mother having left Russia in 1919 while pregnant, which implies that Erast Fandorin died in that year in the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. Alexander’s son, Nicholas Fandorin, is born around 1960.

I stumbled on these books a couple of years ago and have religiously bought them as soon as translations have become available (my Russian being less than impressive). I’ve considered blogging on each of them, but decided to spread the good word in one all-purpose review. The Fandorin novels are set in the late 19th century, a time of great turmoil and upheaval within Russian society. Fandorin is an unusual character, encapsulating the rigorous logic and analytic method of a Holmes with a complex history and moral code that sets him apart from other fictional detectives. The historical setting demonstrates constancy and accuracy, and the plotting and narrative structure varies throughout the series. I find the novels similar in quality and style to C.J. Samson’s Mathew Shardlake series, and I heartily recommend any fan of historical mysteries to give them a go.

(Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop)

 

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, by Dominic Lieven

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“War,” Thomas Hardy once wrote, “makes rattling good history.” If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven.

Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.

The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.

The Russians stalled and hinted but never gave a firm answer, seeking to keep Napoleon in Moscow as long as possible. On Oct. 19, with the czar still dawdling, French food supplies dwindling rapidly, and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon had no choice but to begin withdrawal. The weather, disease and constant Russian harassment then destroyed his Grande Armee. He started the invasion with 450,000 men; 6,000 returned home.

The myth of 1812 was, he maintains, largely of Tolstoy’s creation in War and Peace — the idea being that it was essentially Bonaparte’s vaunting ambition and Generals Janvier and Fevrier which did for the French. On the contrary, says Lieven: ‘One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that its leaders out-thought him’. Bonaparte failed to understand Russian society, whereas Alexander knew perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy. The Tsar and his war minister, Field-Marshal Barclay de Tolly, fully expecting that Bonaparte would at some stage march on Moscow, planned all along what Lieven calls a ‘people’s war’, which is perhaps more evocative than ‘guerrilla war’, but which was conducted nevertheless on the lines of that against Bonaparte’s armies in Spain. Indeed, Alexander seems to have drawn comfort, perhaps inspiration, from the Peninsular campaign, and Wellington’s bold strategic retreats, in his own plans for ‘deep retreat’ in Russia. Lieven is always generous to Wellington: of the duke’s great victory at Salamanca, he writes that not only did it ensure that even more French troops would be tied down in Spain in 1812 and beyond, but that it ‘boosted the morale of all Napoleon’s enemies’.

What he is keen to demonstrate is that because the campaigns of 1813-14 are generally buried, so to speak, beneath the snows of 1812, the real quality of the Russian army remains unseen. For here was an army that followed up its success by fighting through Prussia all the way to Paris, a considerable feat of logistics, command and control as well as of arms — and without the depredations of the Red Army the following century. Indeed, when they marched home again, Alexander’s troops were feted in many a German town.

Then why — besides the Tolstoy factor — has the extent of the Russian contribution been concealed until now? The author suggests that the Prussians ‘elbowed Russia aside’ when it came to interpreting the campaign of 1813, just as ‘the British grabbed Waterloo for themselves’; and that Soviet-era history has been keener to emphasise the ‘people’s war’ side of 1812 than Tsarist military prowess in 1813-14.

This leads to the central message of Lieven’s work. For him, the Russian army of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was clearly a force of great strength and versatility that was more than capable of meeting the challenges posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon without having to engage in fundamental change. And, as with the Russian army, so with the whole of the Russian state. Far from being some ramshackle eastern despotism, this was in many ways a vibrant and forward-looking organism that possessed extraordinary resources and even offered a number of the advantages that are normally associated only with the French Revolution: a regime that could place such a figure as Mikhail Speransky at the head of its affairs was hardly one in which careers could not be said to be open to talent. In writing about the Russia of Alexander I, Dominic Lieven has also made a major contribution to wider debates on the Napoleonic epoch, and for this, as for so much else, he is to be congratulated.

This is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Russian campaign; it re-evaluates the balance of responsibility for the course of events, and presents a new interpretation of the strategy used by the Russian command. A very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, by David Abulafia

Mediterranean means “between the lands”. The Romans called it Mare Nostrum – our sea; the Turks called it the White Sea; the Jews the Great Sea, the Germans the Middle Sea and the ancient Egyptians the Great Green. Since then it has been known as the Corrupting Sea, the Inner Sea, the Bitter Sea and the Liquid Continent. In this magnificent book, David Abulafia brings all those meanings to life again.

 Corruption in its different avatars plays a significant role in David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a tribute to the Mediterranean’s capacity, over 3,000 years, for revealing the imagination, resilience and ruthlessness of its human populations, from cave-dwellers in the Rock of Gibraltar to those entrepreneurial Chinese who recently acquired the Piraeus docks from a cash-strapped Greek government.

Abulafia’s concern is with the layered experience of successive generations testing the sea as a source of survival, as a bearer of promises and rewards, rather than with these waters as an ecosystem swayed by currents and geology. He challenges the orthodoxy established half a century ago by Fernand Braudel in his monumental multi-volume work on the same subject. The French scholar’s gloomy assertion that “man is imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand” is convincingly dismissed. Political initiative, rather than resistless fate, the present writer suggests, determined not just the importance of Mediterranean cities and settlements but their actual locations.

As he says early on, “Mediterranean history can mean many things”; fortunately for readers he has taken it to mean a study of human life, civilisation and endeavour, rather than a worthy economic survey. A professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University and biographer of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even daringly. As he puts it, his is a “history of the Mediterranean Sea rather than a history of the lands around it; more particularly a history of the people who crossed the sea and lived close by its shores in ports and islands”. It is indeed this, and much more.

From 2,500BC little ships were on the move, growers and makers as well as traders travelling to sell their goods. Olive oil moved alongside stinking fish sauce and wine and silver and pots and plates and even amber from the North. Coins and the idea of coins, as opposed to blocks of precious metal, went by sea; the Greeks in Southern Italy were especially keen on them. Spices came out of the East, but they also went back: saffron was shipped to Syria from the fields around the towers of San Gimignano. Grain travelled North from the rich Nile delta, from Sicily and Sardinia; when the Vandals in North Africa controlled the flow of bread to Rome, they had the city by the throat.

The sea was the heart of things, the cradle of our kind of western civilisation, and endlessly busy. Death travelled; sometimes it’s possible to name the ship on which plague arrived. Ideas travelled, too: a mad kabbalist who needed to see the Pope to proclaim himself Messiah, the Cathars whose dualist worldview may have been imported along with the Bogomil exiles from Constantinople.

Byzantine images influenced Jerusalem. The cathedral at Pisa was decorated with fine, shining Muslim ceramics just as the Crusades were starting. The notion of an alphabet, then the idea of vowels, had to be carried around the Mediterranean long before there was a lingua franca for trade. And so it goes on. People are at the core of the book.

 The ethnic links and trading bonds that emerged across the Mediterranean over the centuries are shown by Abulafia to be equally influential and lasting in forming the essence of the place as the physical elements that constitute it. People do leave their mark on the land just as much as the land (or sea) forms their character. Surely Braudel and Abulafia are reaching the same conclusion from different angles; man and nature are intertwined in ways which we can only appreciate, but must seek to understand.

 Whether Abulafia has succeeded in writing a solely human history of the Mediterranean is difficult to accept. Is it possible to remove the geography from the history of a geographical entity, or is this kind of history an effort to redress a balance between man and nature? Complex and, probably, pointless questions. This is a very well-researched and consistently argued analysis of the development of civilisation along the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the learning and detail is not over-bearing, but rather engrossing and captivating. The vision and scope of this history is reciprocated with literary style and imagination. In short, a very good read.

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, by John Julius Norwich

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The Mediterranean has nurtured three of the most dazzling civilisations of antiquity, witnessed the birth or growth of three of our greatest religions and links three of the world’s six continents. This work tells the story of the Middle Sea itself – a story that begins with the Phoenicians and the Pharaohs and ends with the Treaty of Versailles.

Beginning with the island of Crete, Norwich charts the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman world; he seamlessly mirrors the decline of the Roman Empire in the west with the continuing splendor that was the Byzantine Empire in the east, and chronicles the rise of Islam culminating in  the centuries long struggle for power in the middle sea. Much of the book focuses upon the efforts of the western powers to stem the tide of Islamic advance, the crusading movement is explored at length, and the failure of the Papacy and the west to adequately support the bulwark that was Constantinople is rightly condemned. Culminating in the disastrous conquest of the Byzantine capital in 1204, an event from which the Byzantine state never fully recovered, the ill-considered semi-religious desire of Christianity to reclaim the Holy Land is demonstrated to have been both self-defeating and pointless.

St Marks Venice

The rise of La Serenissima, the maritime empire of Venice is clearly a favoured topic, as is the cultural melting-pot of Sicily under Norman rule. It is in his description of the glories, follies and might-have-beens of these two unique entities the Norwich truly excels. One can sense his admiration, hope, and disappointment, and really touch the Kings, Queens and Doges he depicts.

Even at its zenith, the Mediterranean was being supplanted as the centre of the world. When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, he sounded the death knell for Mediterranean as the pre-eminent waterway of the world. From now on, trade routes gradually moved towards the Atlantic, and the eyes of the world moved hither also. Though not a backwater, the middle sea now witnessed a gradual decline in the relative strength of its inhabitants. The Italian maritime powers slowly sank into glorious decline, the Sublime Porte controlled the east by sea, and inched it’s armies forward by land.

It would be pointless, and cruel, to recount the story to the present, as Norwich himself does it with greater skill than I can muster. It requires tremendous knowledge and confidence to consider researching and writing such a book, but John Julius Norwich is as worthy as anyone to attempt a history so vast and complex as any history of the Mediterranean must be. Previously, he has written on the Byzantine and Venetian empires, as well as the short-lived Norman kingdom in Sicily and Southern Italy. More than this, he possesses the breadth of vision and simultaneous attention to detail that is required for the task of narrative history. Norwich has a knack for story-telling; he is ever enthusiastic, humourous and compassionate, he writes with colour and imagination he has style.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453

Most importantly, he recognises the limits of his endeavour. His is a personal history, it focuses on those events, trends, and personages that appeal to the mind of the writer; it ignores much, and gives a passing nod to even more. Yet it acknowledges these flaws, if flaws they are. The parameters of geography and time always are problematic – it is impossible to discuss Mediterranean history with any confidence if one constantly drops threads once the physical boundaries of the sea are not visible. Policies in London, Paris, Madrid etc. are fundamentally relevent to events in the Mediterranean itself. Norwich is not troubled by this, and nor should he be. A history that includes even the most important events in recorded history from every angle would run to many volumes, and the personal touch would be lost.

But thankfully Norwich never loses this touch. He enthralls and transports the reader to a time when the Mediterranean was much more than beaches full of irritating tourists, extravagant yachts, and monster cruise ships. Perhaps the Mediterranean of the mind is now more glorious and romantic than the reality, but if you can find a piece of untouched beauty, or unadulterated architecture somewhere along that long shore, bring this book with you, and read.