Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Ohh those Turks (and Greeks)

If the last week on Bibliothekia has been about Google, the last month's bedside reading has been about Turkey. Hence the change of pace with this post. But back to Turkey, and in particular Brendan Shanahan's very funny, sometimes sad, often poignant, and always insightful rollicking ride through Istanbul and Turkey titled In Turkey I am beautiful. If you have not already heard it, track down Eartha Kitt singing "Uska Dara – a Turkish Tale" it fits alongside Brendan's book perfectly.

Brendan Shanahan is a promising young Australian author who has written a book titled "The secret history of the Gold Coast" (mental note: must read this) and a biography on Rose Porteous. Apparently, the Rose Porteous biography sailed too close to the wind so it was unfortunately pulped. This may be a loss to Australia's literary heritage.

It is funny how reading pans out. I stumbled across "In Turkey I am beautiful" in a book store, and it has distracted me from Judith Herrin's excellent, informative, and insightful Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. We often think of Byzantium as... well, Byzantium. For those of you who work in large, slow moving, process driven bureaucracies you will know what I mean. Yet, to survive for over a 1,000 years Byzantium must have had some energy and resourcefulness. Judith Herrin brings this to life, and makes it enjoyable by avoiding a strict linear narrative and focusing more on themes.

In this case moving away from the linear narrative was probably a very good idea. If you have ever ploughed through John Julius Norwich's great, wonderful, and magisterial work on Byzantium, you will know how confusing it can get. You often end up with a series of Greek Emperors (often with very similar names) all behaving badly in much the same way as to be indistinguishable from each other. For example, a common way of getting rid of an Emperor who stood between you and the throne was to cut off his nose (its hard to get your face on the coinage if you don't have a profile because your nose has been cut off) and gouge out his eyes (its hard to sign the official paper work if you can't see it). Lovely! And while we are on the topic of linear narratives, it is interesting to see that the succeeding Ottoman Emperor's kept up some of the good and bad habits of the preceding Greek Empire.

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