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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

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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!

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.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

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There is a prophesy. Long ago, Albion’s greatest magician, the Raven King, wrote ominously that “two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me; the first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction.”

We are in an alternative 1806 with the same king (George III, just as mad), the same politicians; the Napoleonic War; Byron; pedantic, provincial, learned societies; gentlemen living on their estates, and (mostly) the same back history. But there is such a thing as magic and, furthermore, northern England has been under supernatural rule for centuries.

Hanoverian hegemony over the territories north of the Humber is theoretically a stewardship pending this entity’s return. The church exists as a social institution, but not as a religious one. For a couple of centuries, magic has been purely academic; there have been no successful spell-casters. But first one, then another, magician arises: a pedant called Mr Norrell, then a country gentleman called Mr Strange.

A partnership arises between these two magicians, but it is an uneasy one. Norrell is conservative, secretive, and fearful, whereas Strange is innovative and attracted to the most dangerous, wildest kind of magic. His interest in the shadowy figure of the Raven King becomes more than academic; this quest puts at peril all he holds dear, and especially the woman he loves. The Raven King, John Uskglass, moving beneath and beside the early 19th century, is attempting to set upon the throne of England a king to rival the current occupant, the befuddled George III. In order to preserve their world, and save his wife, Strange must unite with Norrell and seek to defeat the most powerful magician of all.

At just over 780 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell clicks along at such a comfortable pace that it seems, if not much shorter, just stunningly well-structured for its size and scope. In all its length there is not a single instance of padding, never an eye-glazing moment of pure, dull self-indulgence. To a degree, the story is episodic, but every event is precisely positioned in the narrative to build upon previous events and lead smoothly into upcoming ones. Rooted in two unique and memorable characters, the story just sweeps you up and carries you along, never lapsing to tired clichés nor trading in sentimentalism for its emotional depth. Clarke’s best thematic conceit is her often hilarious depiction of the politicization of magic, leading to the kinds of rivalries you always see in real-life politics, or the arts and sciences. The efforts of politicians and generals to grasp the practical applications of magic is particularly amusing:

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’ Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke’s magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. Clarke’s fantasy is more akin to Laurence Norfolk, Umberto Eco or a slightly touched Dickens, than a Tolkien or Peake, but it is the equal of any of those august names. Perhaps it appeals as much to the historian as to a fantasy-lover, but the humour and sheer skill of the writing must appeal to all lovers of great literature. The leisurely pace of the novel is more than made up for by the astonishingly imaginative footnotes, which are folktales, anecdotes and mini-essays that enthrall the reader as well as inform the plot.

I have always had a soft spot for the epic, the imaginative, and the nostalgic glance into the past. I have more than a soft spot for this book; it contains all these things and more, and if one is brave enough to open ignore the thick spine and heavy cover, the journey that awaits you is worth every second.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

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In his own words, he looks “like a murderer”, and many consider that to be the least of his crimes. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an enigmatic figure even to those who claim to know him. Cromwell appreciates the power of silence: “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”. He is a reticent man by times, but eloquent when required. It is this use of half-light, half-truths, and silence that fascinates his contemporaries, that creates mystery and fear, and a sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence. Cromwell operates in a new a strange world of shadows, figures, theology and administration, which his fellow courtiers are unable to comprehend and compete.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn’t known, and in the novel he doesn’t know it himself). He goes to France because: “France is where they have wars”. He learns banking in Florence, trade in Antwerp. He develops a prodigious memory, and possesses the skill to read people, and manage them. He serves Cardinal Wolsey loyally until his fall and then steps into the power vacuum. He emerges from his picaresque youth as an intimidating, witty, and resourceful man:

“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything”.

Wolsey uses these skills as the vehicle for the dissolution of England’s great monastic orders; their houses are overdue reform and the money garnered shall pay for his new college at Oxford. Cromwell is no lover of Rome and despises the waste and sloth that he encounters. He proves an irresistible force, impermeable to the insults and jibes of his social betters and possessing the legal knowledge and intellectual flexibility to stump all objections. He is also introspective and deeply human. His heartbreak at the death of his wife and daughters in plague epidemics is movingly portrayed by Mantel.

 Indeed, it is this capacity to transmit the complexity of emotion that Cromwell contains sparingly and with subtlety that makes him such a superb and arresting narrator. Cromwell’s flashbacks are a key narrative device in the book; delivered in present-tense with a vivid, humorous retrospection, they penetrate to the core of the man in a profound fashion. Cromwell appears to be a man of stone, a particularly intangible and flexible stone granted, but certainly his face is unreadable to those who encounter him. Mantel manages to depict that ‘stonefacedness’ alongside the subterranean quicksilver of flowing thought, words, and deeds that comprise the real man.

There is something incredibly poignant about the journey of Cromwell and his fellow characters. We know that many will not survive the crises to come. The references to Wolf Hall itself throughout the book, with its’ Seymour connotations, bode ill for our hero. For a hero in fact Cromwell is. He is more a man for all seasons than the intractable martyr Thomas More, and the intellectual equal of both More and Henry VII. He is a man with sensibilities closer to our time, in a way, than to that of most of his contemporaries. Taking five years to complete, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and although a sequel is in the works we may have a while to wait to be enthralled again. I have not enjoyed any book as much in quite some time, and having inflicted it upon a great number of people with success, I am as impatient as anyone!  I can only recommend it most highly to lovers of history, excellent literary fiction, and to those who wish to be transported into a different world; a world of high drama, low intrigue, and essentially human figures reborn under a supremely gifted hand.

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

There is a popular myth that regional minorities in France were dropped into a blender and emerged as part of a nation France. Through exhaustive research and a witty, engaging narrative style, Robb corrects this misconception by showing how, even as modern developments like democracy and the steam engine transformed France from “a land of ancient tribal divisions” into a centralized nation-state, a wealth of regional particularities persisted in “disparate, concurrent spheres.” In its pivotal years between the revolution and World War I, France emerges in Robb’s telling as a land where the past did not morph seamlessly into the future; a land where diversity existed in a permanent tug of war with uniformity; “a land in which mule trains coincided with railway trains, and where witches and explorers were still gainfully employed when Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris.”

Also, it has become conventional to argue that France has been in slow, inexorable decline since 1900. This is true with regard to the loss of empire and political prestige around the world, but it is also true of all the formerly ‘great’ powers. What has really been happening in France, Robb argues, is the erosion of centralised political control in Paris as the plural identities of France – linguistic, cultural and even religious – re-emerge from the margins.

Written as a “social and geographical history” in which “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals,” “The Discovery of France” draws its material not just from the usual array of scholarly sources, but from the author’s own back-road explorations on his bicycle. (“This book,” Robb notes, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) Although Robb eschews the orthodox map of French history, his book covers roughly the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day. This is the era usually defined as the France of heroic modernity – the years when French ideas, from Revolution to art, urbanism and poetry, were exported across the world as universal truths.

In fact it has proved difficult to demonstrate that this unit, or Grand France, has ever occurred, that it was possible to “forge this swarming continent of microscopic kingdoms into a single nation.” Robb shows that regional peculiarity has always survived despite the convulsions that France has undergone, and that these unique ethnic and cultural traits are re-emerging in the national consciousness.

The Discovery of France is the sort of history that seems almost to have disappeared from the world of professional academic historians: written in a light and pleasant style, crammed with colorful and unexpected details, it offers what seem like tantalizing glimpses into a vanished, forgotten past. Robb possesses a masterly narrative style, which floats the reader on a sea of conflicting national identity and linguistic development, while interspersing personal experience with historical analysis. Nonetheless, this is not an academic work to be avoided by francophiles and amateur historians. It is a romantic, slightly nostalgic look at a complex nation still trying to find itself after centuries of nationhood. Most importantly, it is an engrossing read!

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop € 10

An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor, by Michael Smith

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One hundred years ago, in March 1909, Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition came home safely. When Scott heard the news, he immediately contacted Tom Crean with the intention of planning his own adventure. And thus the Terra Nova Expedition was born. The remarkable Tom Crean ran away to sea aged fifteen and spent more time in the unexplored Antarctic than Scott or Shackleton, and was one of the few to serve and outlive both. Michael Smith’s original biography of this enigmatic figure spawned a Guinness ad, a one-man play that is still touring today and a children’s version of the Ice Man which has been chosen as the ‘One Book’ for literacy groups in Cork and Limerick. Tom’s story continues to fascinate people because of his extraordinary feats of survival, his bravery and his dedication to his comrades. At the end of his expedition days, Tom came home to Ireland, married and built a pub, the South Pole Inn, in Annascaul, County Kerry. He was an ordinary man who did incredible things, a modest man who became a hero. An unforgettable story of triumph over unparalleled hardship and deprivation.

Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop for €7