Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: A Secret Well Kept by Constance Kell

I think, the title - "A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, Founder of MI5"  - is a little misleading. What this is, in fact, is a quite acceptable memoir of a life shared between two people which is told in the first person narrative by Lady Constance Kell. The story, told in a charming and free flowing manner, is interspersed with anecdotes of her husband's military and diplomatic career, and then his work in the creation and establishment of MI5. A juicy spy story this is not (which is sort of what I was looking for - the nuts and bolts).

Having said that, I honestly found the story of Lady Kell more interesting than that of her husband. Here was a young Irish woman who, following her marriage, accompanied her husband to China, survived the Boxer Rebellion, had some adventures of her own in China, traversed the trans-Siberian Railway back to Europe and England; witness the outbreak of WWI, survived the great influenza epidemic of 1918, saw the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 and the outbreak of WWII! Through her husband, she rubbed shoulders with an array of interesting folk from politician, diplomats and royalty. What a woman!

For the life of Sir Vernon, Stewart Binn's introduction in the bool was really all that was required to sum up his life.

Recommendation: read it for the story of Lady Kell.
See also: Rare family photos - Express Newspaper

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Novels of Irish Insurrection

The Red & the Green - Iris Murdoch
On the eve of the Easter Rising, a divided Irish family is pushed to the brink of destruction  In the dark days of the First World War, tensions between Catholic Pat Dumay and his Protestant cousin Andrew Chase-White threaten to tear their family apart along political and religious lines. As Ireland moves ever closer to the deadly Easter rebellion, the family is engulfed in an epic drama of love, loyalty, and loss that will change their lives forever.  The Red and the Green is in the end a story of tragic freedom, defined by Iris Murdoch as “the concept of freedom which I have related to the concept of love: freedom as an exercise of the imagination in an unreconciled conflict of dissimilar beings”

The Red & the Green was Iris Murdoch's only novel written about historical events in Ireland - and it has, and will, remain one of my all time favourites. Even today, many years after reading, the characters, especially that of Pat Dumay, are still vivid and ever present as they were when I first picked up this book at my local library.  Criticism of this work of Iris Murdoch has been varied - you can read through the various critiques here at Per See.  In depth reviews can be found here at Colby Quarterly, Seeing the World through Books, and Irish Philosophy.

Across the Bitter Sea - Ellis Dillon
Another volume that has remained implanted upon the memory cells.
An Irish family saga spanning nearly 70 years, from the potato famine to the Easter Rebellion in 1916, whose lives are dominated by the politics of the day. Alice MacDonagh is a girl from the Connemara bogs who becomes a lady by marrying Samuel Flaherty, the son of a landlord. She loves Samuel and is devoted to the cause of reform he espouses but she also manages to maintain a steady passion for Morgan Connolly, a Fenian, whose wife she becomes after Samuel is assassinated. In their work for Irish independence they are aided by James Fahy, son of the schoolmaster, who abandons medicine for the British civil service. 

Agony at Easter - Thomas Coffey 
Separated into six separate chapters for each of the days that Dublin was in the hands of the Provisional Government, this work of historical fiction depicts in great detail the events in and directly around the GPO during the 1916 Rising.

Blood Upon the Rose: Easter 1916, The Rebellion that Set Ireland Free - Gerry Hunt 
Depicting twelve days in 1916, from April 23rd to May 3rd, this book details the events of the Easter Rising from perspective of the key Irish organizers and military commanders with all the action taking place in Dublin.

Consumed in Freedom’s Flame - Cathal Liam
The novel begins near the end of the Easter Rising, flashing back and forth between the present and the past events that led up to it. Part of a group led by The O’Rahilly and tasked with capturing a British barricade, Aran Roe O’Neill—one of the Rising’s key snipers—is one of very few who manages to escape with his life. Throughout the War of Independence, British practices become increasingly contradictory to the rules of international humanitarian law, and the Irish people slowly come to support the wishes of the IRA. The novel ends when truce terms come into effect on July 11, 1921

The Men That God Made Mad - WA Ballinger
The novel begins at the start of the 1916 Rising, depicting the frenzy inside the GPO as the building is taken over by rebel forces. The subsequent chapters, however, consist of flashbacks that mostly describe how a group of men from Kilcroom, County Cork, go about gathering arms and money in preparation for the upcoming revolution.

1916, A Novel Of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llywellyn
This epic tale is told through the experiences of the fictional Ned Halloran. Battle scenes are both accurate and compelling; betrayals, slaughters and passions of the day are all splendidly depicted as Llywelyn delivers a blow-by-blow account of the rebellion and its immediate aftermath. ( read review here @ CNN )

The series continues with 1921: The Great Novel of the Irish Civil War
The struggle of the Irish people for independence is one of the epic tales of the 20th century. The two big historical names in 1921 are Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, both famous, mysterious, and familiar Irish figures.

and with 1949: A Novel of the Irish Free State
The tragedy of Irish civil war gives way in the 1920s to a repressive Catholic state led by Eamon De Valera. Married women cannot hold jobs, divorce is illegal, and the IRA has become a band of outlaws still devoted to and fighting for a Republic that never lived. The Great Depression stalks the world, and war is always on the horizon, whether in Northern Ireland, Spain, or elsewhere on the European continent.

The Informer -Liam O’Flaherty
The haunting story of Gypo Nolan, a former policeman turned revolutionary who divulges the whereabouts of his friend Frankie McPhillip to the police and subsequently finds himself hunted for the betrayal.

Insurrection - Liam O'Flaherty
The novel follows a diverse group of characters who are caught up in the events of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The group are dispatched to defend the main road from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire (Dublin’s main port) from the expected arrival of British reinforcements. The novel explores each man’s motivations, fears and hopes through the battles and violence which ensue. The principal characters are: The uneducated, slow-witted Bartly Madden; Kinsella, the disciplined commander of a small band of insurgents; Stapleton, an anarchist and would-be poet; and Tommy Colgan, a youth consumed by fear and self-doubt

Year of the French -Thomas Flanagan
An advance guard of Irish patriots land in Mayo in 1798, committed to freeing their country from English rule. American author Thomas Flanagan’s novel charts the short-lived insurgency and the vicious counterattack on the Irish people that it provoked.

The House of Splendid Isolation - Edna O'Brien
An IRA soldier is on the lam and flees to Limerick. He takes an old woman hostage and the two battle it out. In O'Brien's view, with Ireland is a tired old woman with a sad story and not a lot of hope. Those who supposedly fight for her freedom just antagonize and torment her. 

Fool of Fortune - William Trevor
An informer’s body is found on the estate of a wealthy Irish family shortly after the First World War, and an appalling cycle of revenge is set in motion. Led by a zealous sergeant, the Black and Tans set fire to the family home, and only young Willie and his mother escape alive. Fatherless, Willie grows into manhood while his alcoholic mother’s bitter resentment festers. And though he finds love, Willie is unable to leave the terrible injuries of the past behind.

Trinity - Leon Uris
A sweeping and powerful epic adventure that captures the “terrible beauty” of Ireland during its long and bloody struggle for freedom. It is the electrifying story of an idealistic young Catholic rebel and the valiant and beautiful Protestant girl who defied her heritage to join his cause. It is a tale of love and danger, of triumph at an unthinkable cost

Gracelin O'Malley - Anne Moore
A vivid chronicle of 19th-century Ireland, the first volume of Ann Moore’s popular trilogy introduces a courageous young heroine and movingly portrays an indomitable people as they struggle to survive the infamous famine and the brutal civil war that arrived in its wake. 

The Yellow House - Patricia Falvey
Eileen O’Neill’s family is torn apart by religious intolerance and secrets from the past. She is soon torn between two men, each drawing her to one extreme. One is a charismatic and passionate political activist determined to win Irish independence from Great Britain at any cost, who appeals to her warrior’s soul. The other is the wealthy and handsome black sheep of the pacifist family 

The Girl in the Castle by Santa Montefiore
When the Irish revolt to throw over British rule in Southern Ireland, Jack enlists to fight. Worried for her safety, Jack warns Kitty to keep her distance, but she refuses and throws herself into the cause for Irish liberty, running messages and ammunition between the rebels. But as Kitty soon discovers, her allegiance to her family and her friends will be tested — and when Castle Deverill comes under attack, the only home and life she’s ever known are threatened.

The Shadow of a Gunman - Sean O'Casey
Donal Davoren is a poet who has come to room with Seumus Shields in a poor, Dublin tenement slum. Many of the residents of the tenement mistake Donal for an IRA volunteer. Donal does not refute this notoriety, especially when it wins him the affection of Minnie Powell, an attractive young woman in the tenement. Meanwhile, Seumus' business partner, Mr Maguire hides a bag full of Mills bombs in Seumus' apartment before participating in an ambush in which he is killed. The city is put under curfew as a result of the ambush, and Donal and Seumus do not discover the grenades until the Auxiliaries are raiding the tenement. Minnie Powell takes the bag and hides it in her own room. The Auxiliaries find nothing of note in Seumus' room, but take off Minnie Powell, who is later killed trying to escape.

Rebel Sisters - Marita Conlon-McKenna
Two sisters find themselves caught up in their country’s struggle for freedom. Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett – both leaders of 'The Rising' – while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and bravely takes up arms, fighting alongside Countess Constance Markievicz in the rebellion.  On Easter Monday, 1916, the biggest uprising in Ireland for two centuries begins. The world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear will be torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy. 

A Star Called Henry - Roddy Doyle
Born in the Dublin slums of 1901, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he's out robbing and begging, often cold and always hungry, but a prince of the streets. By Easter Monday, 1916, he's fourteen years old and already six-foot-two, a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army.   A year later he's ready to die for Ireland again, a rebel, a Fenian and a killer. Henry becomes a Republican legend - one of Michael Collins' boys, a cop killer, an assassin on a stolen bike.

1798: Tomorrow the Barrow We'll Cross - Joe Murphy
The summer of 1798. Against all odds, against all hope, a tiny county fights the British Empire to a standstill. Two brothers, Dan and Tom Banville, find their comfortable rural existence ravaged as Ireland tips inevitably towards war. As the whispers and nods in the pubs and fields explode into all-out Rebellion, the Banville brothers find themselves thrust to the forefront of the revolution.

The Croppy: A Tale of 1798 - Michael Banim
Set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the "Croppies" (with their rebellious short hair) were men automatically suspected of sympathies with the pro-French underground organisation the Society of United Irishmen, and were seized by the British administration and its allies for interrogation and often subjected to torture by flogging, picketing and half-hanging. 

The Boyne Water - John Banim 
Set in Ulster during the Jacobite war of 1688–91 and the Siege of Derry. Can personal relationships survive the political and sectarian polarisation of the times.

An Excess of Love - Cathy Cash Spellman
Dublin is a hotbed of Republican fervor, and the FitzGibbon sisters find themselves at the center of it. This story brings to vivid life the Irish struggle for independence and tells the story of one impassioned family who lives the dream of freedom, and heroically pay the terrible price it exacts.

After the Lockout - Darren McCann
Set in Ireland in 1917, Victor Lennon returns home to the village of his birth. He has made a name for himself as a hero of the Easter Rising during his time in Dublin's slums, but he is not welcomed by all on his return home. He clashes with the local bishop and he is confronted by the problem of his drunkard father and not sure if he will be welcomed back by his long-lost love. He will have to choose between past loyalties and his own dreams for a future life.

Boycott - Colin Murphy
Two brothers, Owen and Thomas Joyce, barely survived the horror of the great famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s. Three decades later they are thrown together during the Land War, when evictions and landlord cruelty reach an intolerable level.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan = William Butler Yeats
Set in 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, an old woman persuades a young man to forgo marriage and fight for his country instead.

A Nest of Simple Folk - Sean O'Faolin
A novel set in the period between the Easter Rising (1916) and the establishment of the Irish Free State (1921), 

The 13th Apostle - A Novel Of Michael Collins And The Irish Uprising - Dermot McEvoy
The 13th Apostle is the reimagined story of how Michael Collins, along with his young acolyte Eoin, transformed Ireland from a colony into a nation. Collins’s secret weapon was his intelligence system and his assassination squad, nicknamed “The Twelve Apostles.” On November 21, 1920, the squad—with its thirteenth member, young Eoin—assassinated the entire British Secret Service in Dublin. Twelve months and sixteen days later, Collins signed the Treaty at 10 Downing Street, which brought into being what is, today, the Republic of Ireland.

Book Reveals Lost Inca Treasure

Has an historian from Ecuador found resting place of last Inca king? That is the question still being asked today.

The historian carefully leafs through pages of a 400-year-old, leather-bound book until she finds the shaky signature. It’s a faint scrawl that has consumed Tamara Estupiñan for more than 30 years, led her to find forgotten Inca ruins and sparked an academic firestorm.
The signature, she says, is the key to unlocking two of archaeology’s greatest mysteries: What happened to the body of Atahualpa, the last king of the Incas? And what became of his fabled treasure?
Estupiñan thinks she has the answer to both questions. And while she hasn’t found gold, she may have uncovered something considered even more precious.
read more here @ Miami Herald

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article135826498.html#storylink=cpy

The Flower of Chivalry

Having just purchased a second book with this byline and contemplating a third title, my curiosity was piqued - how many other medieval warriors bore this title - who were these knights who were the epitome of the chivalric code.

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146 or 1147 – 14 May 1219), also called William the Marshal, was an Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman. He served five English kings – Henry II, his sons The "Young King" Henry, Richard I, John, and John's son Henry III.

Further reading:
William Marshal, the Flower of Chivalry by Georges Duby
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge
William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147–1219 by David Crouch
William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England by Sidney Painter

Bertrand du Guesclin (c. 1320 – 13 July 1380), nicknamed "The Eagle of Brittany" or "The Black Dog of Brocéliande", was a Breton knight and French military commander during the Hundred Years' War. He was Constable of France from 1370 to his death. Well known for his Fabian strategy, he took part in six pitched battles and won the four in which he held command.

Further reading:
The Flower of Chivalry: Bertrand Du Guesclin and the Hundred Years War by Richard Vernier 

Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard (1473 – 30 April 1524) was a French soldier, generally known as the Chevalier de Bayard. Throughout the centuries since his death, he has been known as "the knight without fear and beyond reproach" (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). He himself however, preferred the name given him by his contemporaries for his gaiety and kindness, "le bon chevalier", or "the good knight". 

Further reading: 
The Chevalier Bayard by Samuel Shellabarger
The Story of the Chevalier Bayard by E Walford 

Sir William Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale (circa. 1300-k.1353) was also known as the Knight of Liddesdale and the Flower of Chivalry. He was a Scottish nobleman and soldier active during the Second War of Scottish Independence. 

Further reading: 
Border Fury: England and Scotland at War 1296-1568. by John Sadler 
The Black Douglases by Michael Brown 
Chronica Gentis Scotorum, by John of Fordun 

Sir Philip Sidney (30 November 1554 – 17 October 1586) was an English poet, courtier, scholar, and soldier, who is remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age. 

Further reading
Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney by Fulke Grevile
Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet by Katherine Duncan-Jones

Henry V (9 August 1386 – 31 August 1422) was King of England from 1413 until his death at the age of 36 in 1422. He was the second English monarch who came from the House of Lancaster.

Further reading:
Henry V, Flower of Chivalry by Craig David Taylor
The Life and times of Henry V by P Earle
Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England by Juliet Barker

Edward of Woodstock KG (15 June 1330 – 8 June 1376), called the Black Prince, was the eldest son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, and the father of King Richard II of England. He was the first Duke of Cornwall (from 1337), the Prince of Wales (from 1343) and the Prince of Aquitaine (1362–72). Edward has been referred to as the Flower of English Chivalry

Further reading:
Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe. by David Green

Roland (died 15 August 778) was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who became one of the principal figures in the literary cycle known as the Matter of France. The historical Roland was military governor of the Breton March, responsible for defending Francia's frontier against the Bretons. 

Further reading:
Wikipedia - The Song of Roland
The Song of Roland by Dorothy Leigh Sayers

The story follows the adventures of a hidalgo named Mr. Alonso Quixano who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity and decides to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. 
Fearing he is dead, Sancho Panza laments Don Quixote: "Oh flower of chivalry, that with one blow of a stick hast ended the course of thy well-spent life! Oh pride of thy race, honour and glory of all La Mancha, nay, of all the world, that for want of thee will be full of evil-doers, no longer in fear of punishment for their misdeeds!

Further reading
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

And finally we come to: 
Jean II Le Maingre, called Boucicaut (August 28, 1366 — June 21, 1421) was Marshal of France and a knight renowned for his military skill - the very flower of chivalry.  From his earliest years at the royal court in Paris, he distinguished himself in knightly pursuits: sorties against seditious French nobles, ceremonial jousts against the English enemy, crusading in Tunisia and Prussia, the composition of courtly verses, and the establishment of a chivalric order for the defence of ladies, the Order of the Enterprise of the White Lady of the Green Shield. 

Further reading
The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II Le Meingre by Craig David Taylor

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Corresponding Renaissance

Author Lisa Kaborycha talks about her book "A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650" at Oxford University Press Blog.

Writing letters was a quintessential part of everyday life in the Renaissance. The ability to write elegant, expressive, persuasive letters was a highly-prized skill. Beyond a practical necessity, letter writing was considered a high art. The Renaissance art of epistolarity, specifically the humanist penchant for modeling personal letters after those of Cicero, has been well documented. Less examined is what it meant for Renaissance individuals to publish their personal letters for all to read.  Renaissance women participated in this publishing phenomenon, demonstrating a willingness to share their innermost thoughts and to expose intimate details of their lives to the broader reading public. 

read rest of article her @ OUP Blog - Italian Women & 16th Century Social Media

The Fellowship of the Book: Manutius & Bembo

The figure of Aldus Manutius, the “Michelangelo of the Book,” is inseparable from the city where he produced his most important innovations: Venice, the principal printing centre of the Renaissance. 

Aldus’ most notable relationship with Venice, though, emerges through his fellowship with the intellectual and polygraph Pietro Bembo. Whereas Manutius revolutionized printing and reading, Bembo revolutionized the Italian literary language and canon. 

Manutius and Bembo’s partnership was particularly successful mainly because it benefited both sides equally. Bembo owed Manutius his first steps in the literary arena, since Aldus published his first texts – the scientific treatise De Aetna and the dialogue Gli Asolani– and entrusted Bembo with the critical edition of Dante’s and Petrarch’s immortal masterpieces. For the De Aetna, Manutius decided to use a new italic typeface, and commissioned it to his trusted punchcutter Francesco Griffo: in 1495-96, thus, the Bembo typeface was born. 

read entire article - The Fellowship of the Book by Elisa Mondolo here @ SFU Library Special Collections & Rare Books

Books: Holocaust History

From History News Network, comes two books tackling controversial characters from modern history.

The Devil's Diary
New York Times bestselling author Robert K. Wittman is the author of The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich. As an FBI agent and then a private consultant specialized in recovering artifacts of historic significance, he first learned of the diary his new book is about in 2001, when the chief archivist for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum contacted him to say that someone was trying to sell it for upwards of a million dollars. 
The diary is as significant an artifact as any that Henry or I had found in our careers. It is a priceless historical artifact, and at a time when fewer and fewer witnesses to the Holocaust survive to tell their stories, it is a powerful reminder of the cataclysmic perils of a hateful and misguided ideology like Alfred Rosenberg’s.
read more here @ History News Network

The Pharmacist of Auschwitz?
Interview with author Patricia Posner whose book The Pharmacist of Auschwitz? details the life of Victor Capesius, the Nazi who was the chief pharmacist and co-worker of Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.
Capesius, on the other hand, is typical of many SS officers who were involved in terrible crimes at Auschwitz but sailed under the radar for a long time. He was one of the small cogs that allowed the Nazi killing machinery to work so efficiently.  Capesius is the quintessential ordinary man who becomes capable of extraordinary crimes, the concept that historian Hannah Arendt coined as the “banality of evil.”
read interview here @ History News Network

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tsundoku - Book Hoarding

Book hoarding is a well-documented habit.  In fact, most literary types are pretty proud of the practice, steadfast in their desire to stuff shelves to maximum capacity. They’re not looking to stop hoarding, because parting with pieces of carefully curated piles is hard and stopping yourself from buying the next Strand staff pick is even harder. 

The desire to buy more books than you can physically read in one human lifetime is actually so universal, there’s a specific word for it: tsundoku. Defined as the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed, the term is a Japanese portmanteau of sorts, combining the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”), “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”) and “doku” (meaning “to read”).

Speaking of addictions ― the term “bibliomania” emerged in England around the same time as “tsundoku.” Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer, wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance in the 1800s, outlining a fictional “neurosis” that prompted those suffering from it to obsessively collect books of all sorts. 

Bibliomania has a dark past, documented more as a pseudo-illness that inspired real fear than a harmless knack for acquiring books we won’t have time to read. “Some collectors spent their entire fortunes to build their personal libraries,” Lauren Young wrote for Atlas Obscura. “While it was never medically classified, people in the 1800s truly feared bibliomania.” 

Read entire article here @ Huffington Post

Movie: The Last Duel

One of my favourite books is set to become a movie - Eric Jager's The Last Duel.

Shaun Grant has been set to adapt the Eric Jager novel The Last Duel for Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games: Mockingjayis to direct with Erwin Stoff producing. Set in France,The Last Duel is the true story of a duel in 1386 between knights Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. It was the final duel sanctioned by the French government, ruled at the time by King Charles VI.  Grant scripted the Justin Kurzel-directed Australian film Snowtown, a chronicle of the fact-based Snowtown murders. He also wrote Berlin Syndrome, an adaptation of the psychological thriller novel by Melanie Joosten that Cate Shortland will direct this summer.  

Read more @ Hroarr - What Really Happened at the Last Duel - Part 1 & Part 2 by Ariella Elema

Book Review: Mongols in the Islamic World

Peter Jackson, emeritus professor of medieval history at Keele University, came out with his magisterial The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 in 2005, detailing the epic clash between the forces of 13th century Christendom and the waves of Mongol invasion threatening to engulf it. The standard account of that invasion has been the stuff of films and historical melodrama for 600 years: the brutish Mongols slaughtered whole populations of city and countryside with comprehensive gusto, sparing an assortment of accountants and clerks to run the administrative tasks to which they themselves were indifferent. The signature of the great Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan, was one of ruthless bloodshed.

In his earlier book, Jackson sought to add nuance to that standard account, using a wide array of sources to reinforce a more balanced picture of what might at first seem the least-reclaimable item in all of human history – the conquering Mongol horde. And his deeply impressive new book, The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, continues that reclamation process, following the forces of Genghis Khan as they enter and overrun Central Asia in the early 13th century, quickly conquering virtually all Muslim territories east of Syria. Present-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan – huge tracts of Western Asia fell under Mongol domination in the years that followed.

Read entire review of Mongols & the Islamic World
Read also review of Mongols & the West

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon

When Fay Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete.

In Death of a She Devil, Bobbo is in effect Ruth’s prisoner, ancient and confined to bed, from where he rants his misogyny and sexually assaults his nurse. Meanwhile, Mary haunts the lighthouse, indulging in some light poltergeist activities and narrating the political machinations within the institute. An ambitious young woman named Valerie Valeria has plans to replace the She Devil, and Ruth’s freakishly beautiful grandson Tyler seems like the perfect vehicle for her schemes.

read more here @ the Guardian

New Fiction: The City Of Brass 

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles. 
S.A. Chakraborty's debut novel, The City of Brass, is an epic historical fantasy about con-artist, Nahri, who strikes up a friendship with “a fiery djinn prince who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime. But, in a world where loyalty is a magical bond and grievances last for millennia, she soon learns that working with the enemy – even to make peace – can have deadly consequences.”

read an excerpt here @ Gizmondo Australia or visit S.A Chakraborty's website

How real books have trumped ebooks

The title says it all - the popularity of the e-book has slowly diminished since 2014 and the physical book has made a resurgence.  I, myself, have always favoured the physical book - whether hardback, paperback, softcover - over the e-book. I just find them more user-friendly.  I don't have an e-reader, I use my laptop - so for me, holding the book in my hand is more convenient and more conducive to reading.

Here's what Alex Preston has to say on the issue in the Guardian:
Books have always had a fetishistic quality to them, with their dusty secretiveness. Now, though, it feels like we’re living through a special moment in the history of book design and beautiful books are everywhere.
The latest figures from the Publishing Association showed ebook sales falling 17% in 2016, with an 8% rise in their physical counterparts. At the same time, publishers’ production values have soared and bookshops have begun to fill up with books with covers of jewel-like beauty, often with gorgeously textured pages.
Whether the physical book goes the way of the hand-illuminated manuscript, an object of merely historical interest for all its beauty, or whether this ancient piece of technology is here to stay, we should all be celebrating the work of the designers and publishers who have responded to the gauntlet thrown down by ebooks with such aplomb.
We should also recognise that the most beautiful books of the last few years have also been some of the most brilliant and inspired. The care and attention lavished on those intricately illuminated medieval volumes said something important about what was written inside them, the value of the words within, and this is no less true today.

read entire article here @ the Guardian

Once upon a time: a brief history of children's literature

Shockheaded Peter c.1917
Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.

Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.

We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.

read entire article here @ the Conversation

‘Sex and the Constitution’

Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Sex & the Constitution, guest blogs at the Washington Post, discussing the attitude of Ancient Greeks to sex:

I thought it might it interesting in this piece to elaborate a bit on that observation and to give you at least a glimpse of that world. The following is a brief excerpt from the chapter in “Sex and the Constitution” on “The Ancient World” 
From the sixth to the fourth century B.C., Greek culture attained its most impressive achievements in literature, philosophy, politics, science and the arts. The Greeks of this era generally eschewed the legal enforcement of moral or religious notions of “right sexual conduct.” Classical Greek morality and law focused not on sexual sin, but on whether an individual’s conduct was harmful to others. To the ancient Greeks, eros was a primal force that permeated all facets of life.
read entire blog post here @ the Washington Post

About the Book:
Beginning his volume in the ancient and medieval worlds, Geoffrey R. Stone demonstrates how the Founding Fathers, deeply influenced by their philosophical forebears, saw traditional Christianity as an impediment to the pursuit of happiness and to the quest for human progress. Acutely aware of the need to separate politics from the divisive forces of religion, the Founding Fathers crafted a constitution that expressed the fundamental values of the Enlightenment.

Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers

William Bole reviews Joel Whitney's "Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers" for History News Network:
Whitney writes how the Central Intelligence Agency covertly spawned a worldwide network of media outlets, especially literary magazines, during the Cold War. The CIA used these outlets to further its geopolitical goals—an exercise in cultural diplomacy, or “soft power” in today’s lingo, as distinct from the agency’s hard power that included assassinations, coups, election-related bribery, and other intrusions. The general outlines of this story have been known for decades, but Whitney is clearly hoping to amp up the indignation over what he considers an historic disgrace. In particular the “literary CIA,” as he styles it, blurred the lines “between criticism, journalism, and the needs of the state; between aesthetics and the political requirements of the Cold War.”
read entire review here @ History News Network

The Fixers Who Buried Old Hollywood's Biggest Scandals

The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine by EJ Fleming

Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling are virtually unknown outside of Hollywood and little-remembered even there, but as General Manager and Head of Publicity for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, they lorded over all the stars in Hollywood’s golden age from the 1920s through the 1940s—including legends like Garbo, Dietrich, Gable and Garland. When MGM stars found themselves in trouble, it was Eddie and Howard who took care of them—solved their problems, hid their crimes, and kept their secrets. They were “the Fixers.” At a time when image meant everything and the stars were worth millions to the studios that owned them, Mannix and Strickling were the most important men at MGM. 
Through a complex web of contacts in every arena, from reporters and doctors to corrupt police and district attorneys, they covered up some of the most notorious crimes and scandals in Hollywood history, keeping stars out of jail and, more importantly, their names out of the papers. They handled problems as diverse as the murder of Paul Bern (husband of MGM’s biggest star, Jean Harlow), the studio-directed drug addictions of Judy Garland, the murder of Ted Healy (creator of The Three Stooges) at the hands of Wallace Beery, and arranging for an unmarried Loretta Young to adopt her own child—a child fathered by a married Clark Gable. Through exhaustive research and interviews with contemporaries, this is the never-before-told story of Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling. The dual biography describes how a mob-related New Jersey laborer and the quiet son of a grocer became the most powerful men at the biggest studio in the world.

read article here @ Atlas Obscura on not just Mannix and Strickland but also Fred Otash, who took on the role in the 1970s

A century of holy heroes

Peter Standord reviews Eamon Duffy's "Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants & the Conversion of England" for the Spectator:

The Reformation is such a huge, sprawling historical subject that it makes sense, in this the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther producing his 95 Theses, to break it up into bite-size pieces in order to sample its distinctive local flavours. Eamon Duffy, emeritus professor of Christian history at Cambridge, takes England as his territory, and quickly deprecates the very word Reformation as an ‘unsatisfactory designation concealing a battery of value judgments’. Instead, he sets out to investigate what he characterises as largely a series of homegrown reformations and counter-reformations.
So far, so sensible, but the process of reduction is then taken a step further. Duffy’s ability to shape his scholarship to a wide audience is well known, shown to dazzling effect in The Stripping of the Altars, his groundbreaking 1992 account of the rude good health of late medieval English Catholicism before Henry VIII’s version of the Reformation. Here, however, he offers not a single narrative, but rather a series of 14 essays that range, apparently randomly, from Thomas More’s publication of Utopia in 1516 to George Fox’s founding of the Quakers in the late 1640s.

read more here @ the Spectator, @ the Guardian, and @ the Telegraph

The most famous book set in every state

Whether you come from the California coastline or the snowy forests of Maine, reading a book set in your home state can make you feel a warm nostalgia for that beloved place.

After scouring the internet and surveying our colleagues on their picks, we rounded up the most famous book set in every state in America.

read the full list here @ Business Insider

Saturday, May 13, 2017

May Additions

May is witnessing some new activity in the Library with some new and some new old items being added to the ever-burgeoning shelves - mayhap it is time to invest in more shelving ...

So, in no particular order, here are the latest tomes to be added:
  • King John : Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris
  • William II : The Red King by John Gillingham
  • The King's Revenge : Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History by Michael Walsh & Don Jordan
  • The Flower of Chivalry : Bertrand du Guesclin and the Hundred Years War by Richard Vernier (I have been wanting this biography for some years now, and when I went to purchase it some months ago, it was out of stock - so this time, snapped it up)
  • The Men of the North : The Britons of Southern Scotland by Tim Clarkson
  • The Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age by Tim Clarkson

Also added:
The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski (the others  in "The Witcher" series were added some time ago)

Thanks to technology, my phone reminded me in a timely manner (ie: before I left the area) that my local branch of the Municipal Library was having a book sale (an event I put into my phone calendar some weeks prior and then promptly forgot), and five dollars later I walked out with a box containing the following:
  • The Courtesan's Lover by Gabrielle Kimm (forgetting I already have a copy)
  • Poirot's Early Cases by Agatha Christie (even though I have the full set of Agatha Christies's works in hardback)
  • The Book of Australia Great Trials by  Jeremy Stoljar
  • A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam's Life in Politics by Graham Freudenberg
  • Her Highness the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham
  • Perdition: The Crusaders' Last Stand by James Jackson
  • Children of Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever by Gavin Weightman
  • Street Fight In Naples: A City's Unseen History by Peter Robb
Hope everyone is enjoying their reading this month!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Rare Caxton Print Found

Pages printed more than 500 years ago by William Caxton, who brought printing to England, have been discovered by the University of Reading.

There are no other known surviving examples of these two pages anywhere in the world, from a book believed to have been printed in London in the 1470s.

The pages had been "under their noses" unrecognised in the library's archives.

Erika Delbecque, special collections librarian at the university, described the find as "incredibly rare".

The two pages, with religious texts in medieval Latin, were produced by Caxton at his pioneering printing works in Westminster - and are now going on public display for the first time since they were sold from his print shop in the 15th Century.

According to The Independent, librarians at the University of Reading recently found two pages from a priest’s handbook called Sarum Ordinal or Sarum Pye, which had been pasted inside of another book to reinforce its spine. A librarian working to restore that book noticed and pulled out the pages from the priest’s handbook; they date to between 1476 and 1477.

Read more here @ BBC News and @ Atlas Obscura

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Witness For The Prosecution

A quick Sunday blog as here in Australia, a new adaption of Agatha Christie's Witness For The Prosecution hits the screens.

As a long-time fan of Agatha Christie (thanks Mum), I have read all her books, plays, short stories, and seen many of her works translated onto the screen, whether as a film or TV series. But one of my all-time favourite films was, and still is, Witness For The Prosecution - the Billy Wilder version starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power. I have this on VCR and DVD.

Synopsis: young man, older woman, murder. Most of the drama takes place in the court room or the offices of legendary barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (Laughton). It is suspenseful, dramatic, sometimes entertaining (due to Wilder's direction) - and nothing is revealed until we reach the climatic end.

Now the novel was originally published in January 1925 as Traitor Hands before being re-published in 1933 as part of stories before being expanded on by Christie in 1953 for the play version.

Witness For The Prosecution (1953 play)
The 1953 play opened in London on 28 October 1953 at the Winter Garden Theatre, and starred:

The play opened on Broadway at Henry Miller's Theatre, New York City on 16 December 1954, starring:

Witness For The Prosecution (1957 Film)

This 1957 film version was presented as a typical courtroom drama with film noir elements directed by Billy Wilder, set in the Old Bailey in London. The film, based on the play of the same name by Agatha Christie, deals with the trial of a man accused of murder. The first film adaptation of this story, it stars Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole / Romaine), and Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Roberts), and features Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll - she was also Laughton's wife, starring in many films together). Also look out for Una O'Connor (Janet - I loved her in the Flynn version of "Robin Hood" and  also in "The Informer"). The 1957 film was adapted by Billy Wilder from the play of the same name.

Side note: Billy Wilder was responsible for such hits as "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment", "Double Indemnity", and of course - "Sunset Boulevard". You can view Wilder's extensive filmography HERE.

Then there is the 1982 film version, which is considered to be more faithful to the original story, starring: 

And now to the 2016 mini-series which was adapted by Sarah Phelps and directed by Julian Jarrold  This version is again based on Agatha Christie's original short story. The cast this time around are:

There is no Sir Wildred in this rendition - there is only John Mayhew with Sir Charles Carter prosecuting. And, according to the tabloids, "The biggest coup of the BBC's festive adaptation was that not only did it revert to Christie's original twist, but added considerably to it, making for a far more emotionally ending […which…] transformed a tale of moral turpitude and greed into something of much greater depth and contemporary resonance." 

Whichever version of the story, whether film, play, mini-series, I highly recommend tracking down a copy for yourself.  You won't regret it.

See also: Agatha Christie's - Witness For The Prosecution