Marion Kaminski:  Venice: Art and Architecture, Trans. Mark Cole & Eithne McCarthy, h/b, Konigswinter, Cologne, Könemann, 2005 

Venice is a unique European city. Although the Dutch also have their canals, they seem to be laid out in ordered patterns.  Venice is a crazy place full of twists and turns, mystery, hidden wonders and endless complexity.  It would take more than a year to unlock the artistic wonders of Venice and another year to follow through the remnants of Venice’s amazing history. Venice was  independent until 1866 (apart from a brief sojourn under Napoleon); she was queen of the seas, withstanding much more powerful opponents including being a major player in the sea battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Turks; surviving a series of horrific plagues; and regularly fighting off the rest of Italy often including the papacy.  Venice is full of intrigue, mystery, masks and above all extraordinary architecture and art. 

Marion Kaminski has masterfully found a sensible way through the art and architecture of this tantalizing and complex seemingly floating city. The illustrations in this Könemann collection are of the highest standards and the information is just enough, never too much but calling out the reader for all the things they missed when they visited Venice.  Murano, Torcello and Burano are beautifully covered and the reproduction of major art works is outstanding, including the Peggy Guggenheim collection.  Some of Palladio’s most amazing church architecture is in Venice alongside many other outstanding architects.

The reader finishes the book feeling that Venice deserves to feel hugely proud of what they achieved as a republic and still today as part of Italy…and yet massively huge tourist ships and pressure from hard working immigrants threaten the very lifeblood of Venice whose residents regularly flee elsewhere.

This treasury of art and architecture comes complete with excellent potted histories of events, useful maps, surprising articles about Venetian heroes including Vivaldi, Marco Polo and Giacomo Casanova, a glossary of architectural terms, biographies of major artists, analysis of Venetian architecture and an effective index.  5 stars.

Michael McGirr: Ideas to Save Your Life: Philosophy for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure, h/b, Australia, Text Publishing, 2021 

Michael McGirr
Ideas to Save Your life

Michael McGirr joined the Jesuits immediately after finishing high school and trained with them for fourteen years before becoming a priest for seven years. He was an outstanding chaplain and teacher of English, Literature and Philosophy at St Kevin’s College  in Melbourne. After leaving the  priesthood he married, had children, became a widely regarded professional book reviewer of almost 1000 titles, had periods  of unemployment, published seven books and now works for a major international aid and development NGO.

 I met Michael once in mid-career at a seminar at  St Kevins when I was also teaching religion and literature in schools. I have been to many seminars and forgotten most but I have never forgotten meeting Michael McGirr. His extraordinary erudition, and a mind overflowing with dynamic and interesting ideas almost over powered the whole seminar room and left me gasping. 

Ideas to Save Your Life is ostensibly a book about twenty three or so philosophers from the ancients like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Horace and Epicurus through the Renaissance and beyond to Avicenna,  Montaigne, Spinoza, and  Margaret Cavendish to the “moderns” like Kierkegaard,  Thoreau, William James, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Wallace Stevens, Alan Turing and epiphenomonenal qualia,  Iris Murdoch,and Michel Foucault.  McGirr deals with these complex and powerful philosophers with a light and sympathetic touch, extracting their central ideas in an entertaining way which draws the reader in even when the going gets tough for which McGirr always gives warning.

McGirr notes that it is a mistake to think that philosophy has a narrow meaning. Philosophy is a dangerous sport for control freaks and people who need to know everything. It is a carnival of ideas, possibilities, suggestions, connections, history, and, above all, tricky questions. (p19).

If this is all the book was about it would be worth buying and reading, but even more interesting in some ways is  what in some ways becomes McGirr’s own life story;  his family,  experiences of teaching and learning, and adventures too numerous to mention here. Michael is, all at the same time, thoughtful, sensitive, very funny, searingly honest, challenging, and opinionated in a carefully negotiated way. He is always interesting in such a way that you must read on. 

After reading this book  I don’t think for a minute you will run off and read Spinoza. I do think you will stop, ponder, consider your own life and ideas, and want to go back and pick up on all the pencil marks you made on the book on the way through. 5 stars

Thomas Mann:  Tristan,  Translated H.T. Loewe-Porter, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin/Secker  &  Warburg,  1985 (1902) 

Thomas Mann

German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955)  wrote this little novella in 1902, one of the earliest of his works. It is set in a sanatorium, called the Einfried in the mountains of Central Europe. Thomas Mann lived for some time in a sanatorium in Davos Switzerland due to the illness of his wife and he had ample time to study the impact of such a place on those who were compelled or chose to be there. Several of his novels focus on the impact of such a place on patients. As with so many of Mann’s novels this novella focuses on the character of the artist, in this case, a writer.

Tristan, a title referencing the doomed medieval love affair between Tristan and Isolde, tells the story of the hapless author Detlev Spinell, author of a failed story about European culture and beauty. He  is staying at the sanatorium for the  purely personal reason of kickstarting  his writing career.  He falls seriously in love with the beautiful but rather fey and unwell Gabriele, the wife of successful, powerful and sexually unfaithful German business man Herr Klöterjahn.  The German stays long enough only to see his wife settled in and then returns home to his business and his young son. 

Spinell of course engineers to have plenty of time to conquer the heart of the listless Gabriele and is making some progress. In his foolish stupidity he writes a letter to Klöterjahn detailing with some force his impression of the man’s unpleasant personality and implying his unfitness to be the wife of the delightful Gabriele.  Klöterjahn returns in haste to demolish Spinell only to be interrupted by news of the grave seriousness of his wife’s illness. The hapless Spinell runs away in haste never to be heard of again. 

Mann’s major works delve deeply into the themes of beauty culture and passion. This first little novella is just the beginning of an outstandlingly successful writing career. (4 stars)

Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger, Translated, H T Lowe-Porter, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin/Martin  Secker & Warburg, 1985 (1903). 

Thomas Mann, (1875-1955), Nobel Prize winning German novelist wrote this novelette in 1903. The theme of the novel is the “tragedy” or the “burden” of the artist, condemned not just to live life but to portray it, in this case as a writer.  There may well be some autobiographical components in this novelette. Thomas Mann spent his early life in the Baltic town of Lubeck, (Buddenbrooks in his novel about the Lubeck of his growing up).  Although eventually married with five children, Mann spent a large amount of his life, each morning till midday locked in his study working on his writing leaving his wife to the heavy hitting of bringing up their exceptionally talented five children.

This story of an unmarried writer Tonio Kröger and the burden he feels from having to think and write about life instead of just “living” it,  is very sensitively and passionately written. He describes early childhood school experiences of already focussing on inward thoughts and meanings instead of simply joining in with classmates and being part of the group. At a young age he became aware that he took the process of living much more thoughtfully and deeply than his rambunctious school mates. He had deep desires and thoughts and read widely early but his ideas and feelings made little sense to his classmates. 

Once Tonio Kröger left home he lead a free-wheeling freedom loving life making a living through his writing, exploring everything  that life had to offer with no boundaries to his passions. Achieving success but with few real friends he eventually takes a trip back to the region of his childhood to try to re-engage with what his life could have been really about but his few friends had long forgotten him and he found their life lost to him. The outpouring of his grief attached to the loneliness of the artist and his longing to be ‘common place” to his artist friend LIsabeta is some of the most powerful literature I have read for a very long time. 

Thomas Mann, even in translation, has the ability to grip his readers and keep them on tenterhooks. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short novel.  (5 stars).