Tag Archives: Book Review

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)

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.

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.