Brigitte HIntzen-Bohlen & Jürgen Sorges, Rome and the Vatican City: Art and Architecture, Trans. Peter Barton, Anthea Bell and Eileen Martin, h/b, Cologne, Könemann, 2005 

Exceptional presentation of the art and architecture of Rome from its earliest foundation to the present day. Outstanding analysis of the earliest architectural remains and beautifully illustrated presentation of every major building and interior masterpieces. There are about 1000 churches in Rome and obviously not all can be covered. The major churches are here with detailed photography and excellent analysis of their history. Jürgen Sorges’ helpful historical essays include brief histories of the Roman emperors and kings, gladiatorial combat and the persecution of Christians, the mythical origins of Rome,  Ancient wall coverings and murals, the Gods of the Roman pantheon, the legacy of Rome , the sack of Rome in 1527, the influence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Rome in the second millenium AD, the life and art of Caravaggio, the studios of the  Roman copyists, The Renaissance and the rebuilding of Rome, Mosaics,  the megalomania of the Roman emperors, the cult of Mithras, women in ancient Rome, Chariot racing in the Circus Maximus, the art of the Cosmati, the Bath culture of ancient Rome, early Christianity, the first antique collections of Rome, the Vatican State, the Swiss Guard, the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican gardens.   There are excepional appendices with detailed analysis of Roman architecture:Classical to Baroque, a masterful chronology of events/figures/buildings/art,  a helpful glossary of terms and details of the major figures of Rome’s colourful history. All of this is wrapped in the outstanding full colour quality of this fabulous Könemann series. The eternal city is a most complex place. This is the book to unravel it.  5 stars and rising.

Gillian Mears: Foal’s Bread, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2012

Gillian Mears

Gillian Mears landed a powerful and deeply moving novel of pre world war 2  rural Australian life in outback northern New South Wales, some sixteen years after her previous run of six well regarded and prize winning novels. I have read only one of her novels previously, The Mint Lawn, which was disturbing in its turn. I was  thoroughly captivated by this three generation story based around a sport I was completely unaware of …horse high jumping. This bizarre and dangerous sport that was popular in the Northern New South Wales/Southern Queensland region is brought to life in vivid and stimulating fashion in Mears’ emotionally charged writing.  The mysterious “foal’s bread” of the title appears to be a small separate piece of tissue which comes in the afterbirth of some foals and is highly regarded as an omen of good luck.

In a scene unfortunately too common in remote farming communities and families from my experience as a rural school principal, the startling commencement of the novel begins with a rush.   A young teenager gives birth after childhood incestual assault from ‘Uncle Nipper,  and bravely “boxing up” the child in a butter box, sets the baby free, Moses like, in a flowing creek, never to be seen alive again. This event sets the scene for a constant sense of threat throughout the novel. 

The young girl with the unlikely name of Noah is the strong-willed and powerful lead player amongst a cast of memorable country figures, not least of which is her eventual daughter Rainey. Their entwined lives, both triumphant and traumatic carry the weight of a novel which refuses to let the reader go, each passage forcing the reader anxiously on to the dénouement. The novel also bears witness to the cruel power of polio disease prior to the development of the oral polio vaccine. 

Images emerging from this novel will stay with me for some time I am sure. The evocation of the constant pressure of farming life, drought, flood, country town celebration and the silent Australian bush are all beautifully drawn my Mears.  A worthy prize winner in 2012.  5 stars.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, Trans. & Intro: John  Sturrock, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1921-2) 

In Search of Lost Time

Volume 4 of French author Marcel Proust’s seven volume In Search of Lost Time, finds the narrator coming to terms for the first time and with some surprise, with homosexuality. Part 1 of Volume 4 is summarized as “First appearance of the men-women, descendants of those inhabitants of Sodom who were spared by the fire from heaven.”  The Narrator is amazed to find that M. de Charlus,  the busy, arrogant, learned, well married, committed Christian, well born member of the Guermantes family was also overwhelmingly consumed by his love for attractive young men whom he pursues in this volume with unflagging energy. His partners include the doorman of the Guermantes household, Jupien but his main love interest is the violinist military man Morel who is happy to maintain the relationship on financial grounds while being dishonestly unfathful in his relationships.

Alongside this relationship narrative with some very humorous interludes, the Narrator travels once more for the summer to the tranquil fictional  beach resort of Balbec where he restablishes in a serious manner his relationship with the mysterious Albertine and in whose company the majority of the narrative is maintained in this volume.  Together they negotiate their, at times, shaky relationship and at the same time join in the Balbec version of ‘society’ which in this rural environment consists of a regular luncheon party headed  by Madame Verdurin, a salon which in Paris was well beneath the narrator’s class but in Balbec was satisfactory. The Verdurins had hired a property from the truly aristocratic Cambremers who had two dwellings in Balbec. Much of the humour of this volume comes from the tension between these two families and those who are enticed to dine in either of the homes. Key figures who emerge here are Dr Cottard with his arrogant medical authority, the violinist Morel, the Narrator’s friend Saint Loupe, and the indefatigable Brichot who is a walking encyclopedia of the derivation of every village, town and settlement in the whole of Europe. 

The very short final chapter 4 commences with the Narrator’s detemination to end his relationship with Albertine and ends with his declaration that “I absolutely must marry Albertine.’ (Much to the reader’s surprise.).

This edtion is part of the six volume collection published by Penguin in 2002 which contains an outstanding and invaluable set of detailed explanatory notes and a very helpful translator’s introduction.  I found this volume easier to read than the interminably trivial salon discussions of Volume 3.   4 stars.