A Choice of Christmas Books

A Choice of Christmas Books Pilgrims look at one of the Raphael rooms during the reopening of the Vatican Museums after weeks of closure, at the Vatican last year due to the pandemic. Fr Michael Collins’ book Raphael’s World sheds new light on the Renaissance Master. Photo: CNS.
World of Books
Selected by the Books Editor

The December and January holiday season is the most important sales period of the year for many publishers and bookshops. The tables in the books-sellers are piled with books of all kinds, many on topics that would get better attention at another time of the year, such as March and April or late September-October. One of the ‘big sellers’ of this season is said to be Gary Murphy’s Haughey (from Gill Books, which will be reviewed here soon). But do you want your Christmas gatherings to be dominated by political talk and arguments, often bitter?

No, ‘peace and goodwill to all men’. Here are some books perhaps more in keeping with the season. They are arranged in a somewhat random order.

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Blank Pages by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape, €16.99)

Not to be missed, a real stand-out, the work of a real writer at the full tide of his maturity – his first for an unbelievable 15 years – very much in the great tradition of the Irish short story, going back to George Moore’s The Untilled Field, Joyce’s Dubliners and O’Flaherty’s Spring Sowing, from an Ulsterman who now lives in Scotland (exile being the fate of so many who put pen to paper in Ireland). A vital book, coming from the heart of the Irish literary tradition.

In Fact: An Optimists Guide to Ireland at 100 Mark Henry (Gill Books €24.00)

“But in fact…” Ah yes, how often do those who see things from an evolving historical point of view use those three little words in daily conversation. Mark Henry reminds, or I suspect tells, today’s readers just what has been achieved by the Irish State in its hundred years of existence. We are one of the wealthiest in Europe, which means in effect, in the world. Things that are wrong receive attention and efforts are made to remedy them. This Christmas, a cheering tonic of a book.

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris (Harvill Secker, €15.99)

Based on trial records, other official papers, and on massive newspaper coverage, the murder of a railway official Mr Little by a railway worker named Mr Spollin, was both sensational and instructive, and full of insights into Victorian police work in Ireland. A great read altogether, and a fine example of what a real historian can achieve in revealing the hidden depths of society. Skip a fashionable thriller this holiday. This is the real thing.

The Coastal Atlas of Ireland by Robert Devoy and others (Cork University Press, €59.00)

The latest addition to CUP’s large-scale reference book, this may seem an expensive item but the costly book often becomes the treasured tome. And this one has so much and so varied information that it cannot but provide reading and inspiration for years to come. To know more about our coastline is the beginning of understanding of the seas around and the full submarine spread of ‘the real Ireland’.

Haunted Waters by Daire Whelan (Hachette Books Ireland, €18.99)

Fishing is one of the most popular recreations in Ireland, but it never seems to attract much attention from the media (which is perhaps a good thing as it is not a hobby for crowds). The great Izaak Walton (of Compleat Angler fame) claimed “God never made a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling”. Fishermen of all kinds will know the introspective pleasures of being out in the open along rivers streams and lakes in summer time, away from the press and anxiety of the city. This book recounts a year of fly-fishing, but arises from a hoard of rich experiences.

In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden Niall Williams & Christine Breen (Bloomsbury, €22.99)

Thirty-four years ago the authors of this book moved from New York to Co. Clare and created their garden, and what was for them an ideal way of living. Today with illness in the family, and their beloved garden threatened by the advent of a wind farm, they have recorded one passing year in their garden to preserve a little of what they created and enjoyed and have wanted to share. A delightful, but shadowed book; and not just for gardeners.

Living Planet: The Web of Life on Earthy by David Attenborough (William Collins, €17.99)

The great David Attenborough provides an epitome of the insights that he has being bringing to us since the 1950s. I have been re-reading the series of books from that distant period, and realising with a shock just how great have been the changes around the world since 1945. World War II – now seen from the naturalist’s point of view – now seems to have been a matter of winning a battle, but in the end losing the war. Sir David is (like so many others) an optimist. In these coronavirus-ridden days and nights he will give everyone courage to persist.

Champion: A Memoir by Pat Smullen with Donn McClean (Gill Books, €19.99)
Leap of Faith by Frankie Dettori (Harper Collins, €16.99)

The shops are filled with the usual slew of football, GAA, rugby, and tennis books. These two titles stand out though as more human and more courageous stories of personal and mental courage. And, of course, for Irish readers the horses add an element of instant appeal.

Creation: Art Since the Beginning by John Paul Stonard (Bloomsbury Circus, €34.99)

Every home should have a book of this kind somewhere on its shelves, if only to remind the family that art is far, far more than a matter of record-making prices being paid in place like Paris, Tokyo, Berne and Palm Beach, paid by self-indulging millionaires to lock away often unseen in vaults as investments. As the horizon for the appearance of human-made art retreats further and further into prehistory (the earliest examples now known are found in Indonesia not Europe), we learn more and more about the creative instinct of humanity. But then all creations reflect in some way the mind of an ultimate creator, and the initial creation in the eyes of many.

Raphael’s World by Michael Collins (Messenger Publications, €19.95)

From the very beginning humanist art has been driven by religious, spiritual and philosophical intentions. Art is very life-enhancing. In some ways the Renaissance was the apogee of religious art in Europe, and Raphael is a prime exponent. So understanding a little about his work is to have insight into important aspects of European culture and civilisation. Fr Collins makes a very great artist accessible in his well-illustrated book.

The Library: A Fragile History Arthur der Weduwen & Andrew Pettigree (Profile Books, €29.99)

Books are as the authors rightly observe, fragile things, easily destroyed. Religious, political, philosophical prejudices, all these have led to destruction. Theirs is a celebration of the preservation of books across the ages. The beginnings of modern explorations of the scriptures began with the recovery from the ruins of the library at Nineveh of the baked clay tablets, a sort of mini-brick on which were inscribed the earliest version of Creation and the Flood. That has always been the purpose of libraries to store materials from which a truer vision of the past can be obtained. A truly fascinating book.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History by James G. Clarke (Yale University Press, €35.00)

“The first account of the dissolution of the monasteries for 50 years – exploring its profound impact on the people of Tudor England”, according to the author, should be widely read but one doubts whether it will shift the popular ideas of the tyrannical Henry VIII.

Much interest focuses on the effects on the social life and charities of these islands through the privatisation of monastic lands. Some buildings were converted into the mansions of the new landed gentry, others lingered on in dwindling down condition as buildings for parish use.

But what was really shocking was the wholesale destruction of libraries and the books they contained, as recorded by John Leland, the king’s antiquary, who travelled the country collecting the data. The crime of the Dissolution, robbery on a grand scale, lies at the foot of the Tudor state. These events were a crime against European culture and should be seen and described as such.

James Clark is Professor of History at the University of Exeter, and an important historian of the period. This major book will be essential reading for all students of these dark passages in the history of England and their consequences across these islands . (A full review will appear here shortly.)

Great Cities: The stories behind the world’s most fascinating places (Dorling Kindersley, €30.50)

Another of this publisher’s popular presentations of history aimed at young adults and families, which recounts humanity’s adventures and misadventures as an urban creature, but in the manner of ‘fun facts from history’. The other week it was claimed that in a generation or two Africa would be the most urbanised continent in the world. Seeing how colonial Kinshasa has developed in the last few decades we are not surprised. These cities will be built, however, with the unshared wealth from gold, diamonds, cobalt, oil and copper. Little of that wealth has gone to relieve the chronic and wanton suffering.

‘There might be a drop of rain yet’ by Brendan Lynch (Mountjoy Publishing, €14.95)

Brendan Lynch was for many years a distinguished and widely-published motor racing journalist. His skill in describing the immediacy of life and death that has people crowded at the most dangerous corner of Brand’s Hatch, he has now transferred to his memoirs and novels.

This revised re-issue of a book that was widely admired back in 2006 has the immediacy of real life, but also deeper for of all the pain of growing up in 1950s Ireland under the hand of a domineering, strong-minded mother. After years of working abroad he returned, an established man in his profession, to a much changed Ireland, became reconciled with his mother, uncovering the real roots in the past of her character before she died.

This is an authentic record of a past life realised with an accuracy rarely found in so many novels. It is quite on a level with his own excellent novel The Old Gunner and His Medals.

And finally a look into the coming New Year…
The Almanac: A seasonal Guide to 2022 by Lia Leendertz (Gaia Books, €15.99)

This is the kind of pocket book which was popular in the 18th and 19th century, which was focused on the course of the natural year from spring through summer and into winter. Intended for pocket or purse or knapsack, the author hopes it will allow people to connect with nature on an everyday rather than an occasional basis. The budding naturalists of the nation, and their parents, will love it.