The Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal

Anchor Books (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Somehow I enjoyed the idea of this book more than the actual reading of it. Intermingled stories of six people on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632, all intimately concerned with the public dissection of a criminal, simply doesnt gell. The six are the doctor carrying out the dissection, the condemned man whose body is to be dissected, his pregnant lover desperate to save his body from the scalpel, the flamboyant curio dealer whose job is to procure the corpse after the hangman has done his job, the great philosopher Rene Descartes, who is to be a reluctant witness to the dissection, and the young artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who is destined to immortalise the dissection for all time. Also awkwardly inserted, and seeming to play no real part in the story, are the notes of a modern conservator working on the painting.  It remains basically six different stories, none of them strong enough to carry the narrative on their own. While it is beautifully written, with an economy of prose and a real feeling for the world of 17th century bourgeois Amsterdam, unfortunately, its a plot in search of a story. I dont regret reading it, it’s certainly not a bad book, but its not one of those books destined to stick in the memory for long.

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The Fall of the Ottomans

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920

Allen Lane (2015), Hardcover, 512 pages

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Some time ago I reviewed Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Now here is a book looking at the fate of the third member of the Central Powers alliance. It was generally believed that when the crumbling and archaic Ottoman Empire entered the war that it was on its last legs. The British, French and Russians quickly planned how they were going to carve up the territory they would win when they administered the inevitable swift coup-de-grace to the supposedly rotting edifice. They were in for a rude shock, because the supposedly tottering empire put up more fight than anyone had planned for, a lot more. In fact, the Ottomans fought doggedly for the entire 4  years, in fact, the Turkish garrison in Medina held out until January 1919, a staggering 10 weeks after the armistice, making the Ottomans the last  power to officially lay down all its arms. Along the way, they inflicted two massive and humiliating defeats on the British, at Gallipolli and the Siege of Kut, as well as stubbornly resisting in many theatres where the Allies had assumed an easy victory. Most of the individual campaigns, such as Gallipolli, the Arab Revolt and the assault on Palestine have been well dealt with in individual books, but is this the first book I have read that covers the whole of the Middle East theatre as one  coherent narrative. Skilfully written, fast-moving, and laced with accounts from individuals who lived through it, this is entertaining history. Some of it is sobering, Rogan pulls no punches in assigning guilt for the horrendous Armenian genocide to the Turkish leadership, but overall this is an enlightening work. There are some basic historical errors, mostly relating to the ANZAC troops, which should have been caught, but it doesn’t diminish the appeal of this work. Really, in this 100th anniversary year of Gallipolli, where the world discovered the true fighting ability of the humble Ottoman soldier, this is a must-read.

9/10

The Anchoress

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

HarperCollins (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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A lovely story, delicately written, that tells the story of Sarah, a teenage girl in 13th century England who takes the extraordinary decision to have herself walled up in a cell for the rest of her life so she can pray and contemplate the mysteries of her faith. Almost unbelievable to modern ears, Sarah’s justification for her choice nevertheless sounds perfectly logical in the context of her era. Fleeing the pain of her sister’s death in childbirth and the unwelcome attentions of the manor lord’s son, Sarah undergoes what can only be described as a crucifixion of her body and mind, as she deals with both her bodily and spiritual needs and copes with a tragedy that befalls her young maid. That she emerges from the other end of her dark tunnel liberated at least partially in body and wholly in mind and spirit is a triumph that the reader will feel as well. I admit I have always been drawn in some way to the monastic life, not so much the religious part as the life of peace and contemplation, and books dealing with monks and nuns, both fiction and non-fiction, are always guaranteed to draw me in. Although I think becoming an anchorite goes beyond the pale a bit, it is a wonderful reflection on the lengths that people in a more spiritual age were prepared to go to to to submit themselves to their God’s will. You may not believe, even scoff at their beliefs, but you can only admire the conviction. I think you will love Sarah after reading this book, she is an amazingly strong and appealing character, and the book as a whole, as I said, is just a lovely, uncomplicated read.

9/10

Wolf Winter

Wolf Winter, by Cecelia Ekback

Hodder & Stoughton, (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I have rarely read a book where the style of writing so closely mirrored the physical environment of the story. Wolf Winter is set in the bitter cold of a winter in northern Sweden in the 18th century. The spare, biting prose perfectly matches the bleakness of the surroundings. Not a word is wasted, dialogue is minimal and terse. It is the literary experience of stepping outside into a freezing wind,  a wonderful piece of writing. Ostensibly the story concerns a murder, the body of a man is found torn open as if by wolves, but it is soon determined that he been killed by human, not animal agency. Finnish immigrant Maija almost inadvertently finds herself tasked with solving the murder. Already burdened by the suspicions of the insular locals towards an outsider, as well as the absence of her wastrel husband and the problem of feeding her two daughters, Maija struggles against the unforgiving climate and the murdered man’s family, whose behaviour is distinctly odd, to solve the crime before she herself is condemned by the locals for witchcraft. In addition she has to deal with a priest who has a secret, a bishop with an even bigger secret, and an exiled noble couple with the biggest secret of all. The story is almost incidental to Maija’s struggle to survive the hostile environment and the equally hostile locals, this is primarily a story about how people placed under extreme environmental and social pressure cope and survive. It is a gripping read, following Hannah Kent’s wonderful Burial Rites, one wonders if there is a new movement in Scandinavian crime fiction brewing, not so much Nordic noir, as something like Nordic climate crime fiction, where the environment is as much as an enemy as the criminals. A great read, highly recommended.

9/10

King John

King John: England, Magna Carta, and the Making of a Tyrant, by Stephen Church

Macmillan (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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A worthy, but somewhat pedestrian account of the life and reign of England’s most despised king. In this the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, interest in King John has been much in evidence, and there sure sure to be a swag of books about him, his reign, and the significance of the Great Charter. Its to be hoped that the next books are just a bit more lively than this one. Meticulously researched, well organised and put together, but never really fleshes out John’s character, and he remains really just a depiction of the documents that recorded his reign. I never have much time for people who say history is boring, but I can probably understand where are they coming from when I read books like this. I actually did enjoy this book and found it very interesting and informative, but then I am accustomed to reading the driest of academic texts and finding them interesting too. Content-wise, this book is excellent. Church book-ends the story with the two things most associated in the modern mind with John – one fictional, one factual. They are, of course, Robin Hood and Magna Carta. He disposes of the Robin Hood myth in one terse paragraph in the introduction, pointing out that John was not associated with the Robin Hood legend until more than two centuries after his death, the creation of a writer from the Tudor era. He then deals with the Magna Carta properly, in its chronological place at the end of the book, coming as it did towards the end of John’s life. In between, the story basically deals with John’s catastrophic dealings with France, in which he managed to lose virtually all of the territories he held across the Channel. Despite the title of the book, Church never does really nail down whether or not John was a tyrant, although the question of whether he was a disaster as a king seems quite comprehensively settled. As I said, I did find this book worth reading and interesting, but whether it would appeal to a wider audience, I’m just not sure.

7.5/10

Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of  a Russian America, by Owen Matthews

Bloomsbury (2014), Paperback, 400 pages

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Hard on the heels of reading about one of the world’s best known discoverers, is a great book on one of the world’s least known. While most people would know that Russia famously owned Alaska (and equally famously sold it to the US for a pittance, 2c an acre to be precise), few would be aware that Russia’s ambition in the Americas were far more grandiose than merely owning a chunk of icy ground inhabited only by Inuit tribes. They had ambitions to also own the entire west coast of North America, right down to the sunny shores of California. Indeed, few would realise that the farthest point of Russian penetration in what is now the USA was present-day Sonoma County, just 70 miles north of San Francisco, where a small Russian settlement complete with onion domes is still preserved. The problem with Russia’s grandiose plan was that it brought them into confrontation with the Spanish, who owned California and were understandably nervous about Russian acquisitiveness. To this end, a Russian nobleman named Nikolai Rezanov commanded a grand expedition to the Pacific, with several goals, firstly to check on Russia’s ramshackle sea otter fur operation in the New World, then to try to open up trade links with the reclusive Japanese, and then to seek out the Spanish authorities in California, overtly to explore trade possibilities, covertly to spy out Spanish military capability. The fact that Rezanov failed more or less spectacularly in all of these aims does not diminish the excitement and drama in his story. Rezanov is certainly an interesting character, a man of grand ambitions, but also a petty tyrant. He shares with Columbus an astounding ability to make enemies of everyone, including his own crew, who ended up virtually sending him to Coventry for the large part of the trip, and then tore him to pieces in their various accounts of the voyage. The highlight of Rezanov’s story is undoubtedly his whirlwind romance with the daughter of the Spanish governor of California, a quite astounding story which reads like the best of romantic fiction. After sweeping the girl off her feet, and then proposing marriage,before realising he has no hope of marrying her before he has to leave for home. The two part swearing eternal love and to find each other again, (I said it sounds like  romance novel, didn’t I?). Unahppily, it was not to be. Rezanov died at a miserable outpost in the heart of Siberia during his long trip home, and Conchita spent the rest of her life pining for her lost love, eventually becoming a nun. The story has now become famous in Russia, being made into books and plays. Rezanov’s grand ambitions eventually came to nothing. The Russian fur operation in the Pacific dwindled to nothing, and ended any economic incentive to expand the empire there. Eventually Alaska was sold because it was simply uneconomic to keep. A fascinating story, which highlights a little-know aspect of Russian(and American) history. the book ends by highlighting the still impressive Russian influence lingering in Alaska, where most of the native population are still Russian Orthodox, and where Russian feast days and holidays are still celebrated. People made a huge joke of Sarah Palin’s claim that she could see Russia from her home, but in fact she was absolutely correct. Traces of Alaska’s Russian heritage  are visible everywhere in modern Alaska, and this excellent little book highlights very readably exactly how this came to pass, and also how different America’s history might have been if Rezanov’s adventure had turned out differently.

9/10

Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen

Viking (2011), Hardcover, 448 pages

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I had always had a belief that Christopher Columbus was perhaps over-rated in the league table of explorers, and now along comes a book that more or less confirms that belief. His status has been massively boosted by the hysterical hero-worship he receives in North America, a continent that he not only never set foot upon, but never had an inkling of its existence. When the real story is examined, while his virtues are evident, he was visionary, personally brave, a peerless sailor and navigator, his failings balloon to virtually blot them out. This is an unflinching account of a flawed individual, who accomplished great things virtually in spite of himself. The reader will be pitilessly exposed to the fog of delusion in which Columbus laboured, his stubborn belief that he had discovered the Orient and that contact with the legendary courts of India and China was always only another day’s sail away, with which he persisted with despite the mounting and massive evidence to the contrary, his insatiable lust for riches, his complete inability to get on with his fellow man (Columbus’ ability to make enemies out of just about everyone is truly staggering), his treatment of the Indians, which wavers between being humane, being patronizing and being extremely brutal. There is also his utter failure to establish any sort of working settlement in the lands he had discovered (only one of the numerous settlements he founded survives to this day). Particularly noticeable to the reader is the almost random nature of his discoveries, he just seems to wander aimlessly through the Caribbean without any plan. With regards to arguably his greatest achievement, being the first European to set foot on the continent of South America, he never realised what he had done or what he had discovered. A brutally honest, but fascinating book, for those interested in either the history of discovery or the flaws of great men.

8.5/10

Masters of Rome, by Colleen McCullough

The First Man in Rome (Arrow, 1991, Paperback, 1032 pages)

The Grass Crown (Arrow, 1992, Paperback, 1044 pages)

Fortune’s Favourites (Arrow, 1994, Paperback, 1040 pages)

Caesar’s Women (Arrow, 1997, Paperback, 878 pages)

Caesar (Arrow, 1999, Paperback, 832 pages)

The October Horse (Arrow, 2003, Paperback, 1120 pages)

Antony and Cleopatra (HarperCollins, 2008, Paperback, 640 pages)

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I thought for a long time for the best way to honour the late, great Colleen McCullough. In the end, the answer was simple – I would simply re-read the greatest series of historical novels I have ever read and then review them here. These are the seven novels that literally changed my life , and sent me in a completely new career direction. I started reading them when I was casting about, bored with my then job, looking for something different and meaningful to do. I’d always been interested in ancient history, but my primary focus had always been Egypt. The Romans I largely dismissed as a bunch of boorish orgiasts, nice architecture, shame about the gladiators. Egypt, by contrast always seemed graceful, cultured, mysterious. But I had never really taken my interest so far as to consider a career in the classics. Then I picked up The First Man in Rome one day while browsing. The only Colleen McCullough book I had ever read was, of course, The Thorn Birds (hasn’t everyone?). But apart from being sexually titillating to an adolescent, it hadn’t had a great impact on me. But somehow the blurb on this one caught me, and persuaded me to part with my $13.95. So I read it, then promptly raced out and bought the next one, and then the next, and the next, until I had read in the space of about a month, all of the five she had written to that time (that’s around 5000 pages virtually in  one whack). I cannot begin to describe the effect these books had me. It was my first real contact with the Roman Republic, as distinct from the Empire, a completely different beast, and, my God, is the Republic ever so vastly more interesting. McCullough has perfectly captured the interplay of tremendous personalities that bestrode the Mediterranean world in the last century BC. No surprise, her research was vast and impeccable (the equivalent of 3 full doctoral theses, I’m told). She also presents a list of the most formidable authorities in the classics as consultants and proof-readers. This is fiction that reads like pure fact, yet loses none of the drama. The upshot of reading this epic was that I found my direction in life, charged out and proceeded to do a PhD in Classics. It took seven years, and in the end my dream of an academic career was unfulfilled, but I gained massively by the experience, and the great personalities and events of the Roman Republic will be with me for life. There’s no way to adequately describe these books in a short review, you have to read them. The word “epic” is thrown around too lightly these days, but that is a fitting description for this colossal achievement.

10/10

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R.I.P Colleen Margaretta McCullough

1937-2015