Book Ambassadors: What our envoys abroad are reading this summer
As we stay in Ireland, our diplomats recommend books to bring the world to you
Jessica Traynor gives a poetry reading at the residence of the Irish Ambassador to Brazil in Brasilia in March. Photograph: Saulo Cruz
The Sun on my Head by Geovani Martins, translated by Julia Sanches (2018)
I read this short book of life in the favelas during my last visit to Rio De Janeiro. It rang in my ears like the voice of Luke Kelly singing from the back streets of Dublin, a voice apart and yet immediately familiar.
Seán Hoy, Ambassador, Brasilia
Starlight by Richard Wagamese (2018)
Irish parents understandably often worry about their children in Vancouver but it is a very safe city with an outdoor lifestyle which sits at the foot of the Coastal mountains and enjoys one of the most beautiful natural settings of any major urban centre. One of the favourite summer pastimes for the large Irish community and the locals in Vancouver is to go camping or hiking at the weekends to the great outdoors which, as they say here, is “awesome”.
No one knows the mountains of British Columbia better than the First Nations people who, like the Irish, have a great storytelling tradition. In this context, one of my favourite books is Starlight by Richard Wagamese, which I read on holidays last year in a few days.
It is a short, beautifully written and understated book about a farmer who lives in a very rural area in Northern British Columbia and who draws on his indigenous background to explore the wild mountain outdoors and photograph wild animals at close hand. In this Covid-19 era, I found a resonance in the book as it has the healing power of nature as a central theme.
He shares his knowledge and love of the wilderness with a woman and young child who have not left their troubled past behind them. Unfortunately, Richard Wagamese, one of Canada’s most renowned indigenous writers, past away before he could finish writing the book. Such is the esteem that he is held in locally, that it was decided to publish the book without an ending. This leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next but free to make up their own mind.
Frank Flood, Consul General, Vancouver
Don Juan O’Brien: An Irish adventurer in nineteenth-century South America by Tim Fanning
Don Juan O’Brien by Tim Fanning is a fascinating in-depth look at John Thomond O’Brien who was born in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow in 1786 and would go on to be one of the most significant Irish-born figures in the South American wars of independence. In Chile, he played an important role as General San Martín’s principal aide-de-camp and also made vital military interventions at Chacabuco and Maipú, the most important battles of the Chilean war. The book charts O’Brien’s colourful life as a revolutionary, explorer, entrepreneur and self-publicist.
Ways of Going Home: A Novel, by Alejandro Zambra (2011)
This book begins with an earthquake – something that everyone in Chile will experience if you live here long enough. The protagonist is an unnamed nine-year-old boy and while his neighbours camp outside after the earthquake, he first meets Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on her uncle Raúl. This short book reflects on the experience of growing up during the Pinochet dictatorship, the aftermath, and how the author/narrator deals with memories and stories from that time.
Aislinn McCauley, Deputy Head of Mission, Santiago
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: National Artist of Finland by Timo Martin (1985)
For non-fiction, I recommend a book I read during the Finnish Covid-19 restriction period, a sumptuous 1985 tome Akseli Gallen-Kallela – National Artist of Finland. In the 19th century, Finland underwent a period of cultural revival and flowering – just as Ireland did – a cultural revolution to create a national identity, anticipating the eventual political revolution for national independence.
Born in 1865, AGK became a towering figure in this cultural movement. He was a polymath of the arts world – painter, illustrator, stained glass maker, poster-designer, woodcut-maker, even furniture designer. His paintings are often dramatic, bursting with energy, sometimes anguished, and other times tranquil. His magnum opus was the body of illustrations of the Finnish national epic The Kalevala, a vast body of more than 22,000 verses of oral folklore and poems, collected by Elias Lönnrot and published in 1835.
Some outstanding works in AGK’s Kalevala paintings include the Aino Myth, Triptych (1891), The Defence of the Sampo (1896), Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897), and Kullervo’s Curse (1899). AGK was a massively versatile artist, finding inspiration everywhere, and of his many other memorable works, Boy With A Crow (1884) stands out, as do his landscapes of Finland, and of Kenya, where he spent time. A Finnish artist of world stature.
The Man Who Died by Antti Tuominen (2016)
Set in Hamina in southeastern Finland, Antti Tuominen’s very funny crime thriller, The Man Who Died, is a compelling read. It opens with the stunned narrator, 37-year-old Jaakko Kaunismaa, owner of a mushroom harvesting business, getting devastating news from his matter-of-fact doctor. Jaakko’s presumed flu is not flu, but irreversible long-term poisoning by natural substances. Death is inevitable. Staggering home to tell his wife, his day darkens more when he stumbles upon her in flagrante delecto, annoyingly with a ripped young van driver from his warehouse. (Jaakko is very body-conscious.)
He lets on he saw nothing, tells nobody of his condition, and spends the rest of the novel trying to identify his poisoner (his wife?) and protect his business. The baffled dying undying man manages to muster incredible sisu (Finnish word for “stoic grit in adversity”) to get through assorted perilous scrapes, including murder-minded assaults.
All the while, the novel is peppered with coal-black humour – wisecracks and asides. And the humanity and humour of personal vanity, even in the doomed. Jaakko regularly finds himself musing on his cascading belly and flabby arms, a contrast to the taut stomach and steel limbs of the young man who has cuckolded him. He even muses that dying helps him lose weight.
The book is not about mushrooms, of course, but about money, ambition, deceit, loyalty, resilience and wit. And the quality of writing – paced, vivid, wry, suspenseful – here and in another of Antti Tuominen’s novels Little Siberia (cover picture: a mushroom cloud!) suggests we really need to see more Finnish writers available in English.
Ed Brannigan, Chargé d’Affaires a.i. (until June 2020), Helsinki
The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World by William Drozdiak (2020)
I would highly recommend William Drozdiak’s portrait of president Macron and of his leadership, not just in France but in Europe and on the global stage. The Last President of Europe is a well-researched and easily readable account of the president’s race to revive France and his passion to protect the fragile EU as well as the disintegrating international order.
The book sheds light on the vicissitudes of his political career, thrown into sharp relief by the relentlessly bruising events which have dominated daily life during this period, including the gilets jaunes protests, the lengthy national strikes and the catastrophic fire at Notre Dame cathedral, all of which have been keenly felt through the prism of the Irish Embassy in Paris. This book is serious and well-informed, and a pleasure to read.
Patricia O’Brien, Ambassador, Paris
Frankfurt for Beginners by Matthias Arning (2019
Frankfurt is less known for its cultural attractions than as a major centre of finance but it deserves a closer look given how easy it is to arrive here from Ireland – less than two hours and reasonably priced daily flights. It is the birthplace of several famous writers including the national poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the influential philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, and Anne Frank who had a very happy childhood in the city before her family fled to Amsterdam.
It is a centre for the global book publishing industry but the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the annual trade fairs and the millions who transit at the airport miss out on the city’s cultural offering. Last year’s Frankfurt for Beginners by Matthias Arning coincided with the opening of our consulate and will orient even the most demanding visitor, taking them from the seat of the European Central Bank in the east which, at 185 metres, occupies and towers above Martin Elsaesser’s architecturally significant wholesale market hall, and along the river Main to the centre of the city where St Paul’s Church stands as a symbol of German democracy and national unity having hosted the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, the first publicly and freely elected German legislative body.
Arning notes that for many people Frankfurt may be “love at second sight” but with more than half of the 750,000 residents having a migration background, it is by far Germany’s most international city and can be enjoyed as a very convenient base to take train and boat trips across the riverine Rhine-Main region.
The Original Folk & Fairy Tales – The Complete First Edition, edited by Jack Zipes (2014)
Nearby Hanau is the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm who, just over 200 years ago, published their first collection of tales. Later editions were adapted and embellished for children, and one of the most recent prints, beautifully bound and with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, was published in 2015 by Sterling Publishing Company. For the recent bicentenary, the original, and often darker tales, were translated and edited by Jack Zipes in The Original Folk & Fairy Tales – The Complete First Edition. The Grimm World permanent exhibition in Kassel, where the brothers lived and worked for 30 years, is well worth a day-trip visit to learn more about the traditions, language and influences behind the much loved fairytales.
Nowhere in Africa: An Autobiographical Novel and Somewhere in Germany by Stefanie Zweig (1995, 1996)
One of the better known recent writers is Stefanie Zweig who wrote the autobiographical novel Nowhere in Africa, which is based on her Jewish family fleeing Frankfurt in 1938 to a farm in Kenya. A film adaptation won the best foreign language film in 2002 at the Academy Awards. The sequel, Somewhere in Germany, covers the family’s return nine years later to bombed-out Frankfurt in the late-1940s where the daughter eventually became a journalist and author, documenting how her family processed the complexities of exile, the wartime loss and trauma within their community and the post-war economic recovery.
John Lynam, Consul General, Frankfurt
111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn’t Miss by Alexia Amvrazi, Diana Farr Louis & Diane Shugart (2018)
Thousands of Irish people visit Greece every year, but not many actually spend time exploring Athens. Those who do tend to tick off the main sights, then head straight to the islands. However, if you hang around a little longer, you will discover a vibrant, interesting, lively city with great nightlife, a buzzing foodie scene, constant cultural happenings and intriguing history, from ancient times right up to the recent financial crisis.
If you want a hand on how to see this side of the city, this book is a super place to start. There are recommendations on everything from cafes to craft shops, hidden gardens to offbeat museums. Greek friends have commented that it suggests visiting places even they didn’t know about. It’s well written with lovely photographs, so also suitable for armchair voyagers if a trip abroad is not on the cards this year.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
Greece is understandably proud of its ancient history. Hotels and restaurants have classical names, every village has a connection with Greek mythology, and you will be served coffee by Antigone, driven in a taxi by Dionysus or welcomed to your hotel by Athina.
If, like me, you haven’t studied Classics, you may find yourself curious about these ancient tales. You can of course get translations of the originals, but there are also some excellent modern re-workings of the stories, which make for a lighter summer read. Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry cover many of the legends in two big collections, and The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes is an interesting take on Antigone.
My favourite so far, however, is The Song of Achilles, the novelisation of the story of Achilles as told by his closest friend, Patroclus. It’s a beautiful, gripping and heart-wrenching read that brings a new perspective to a well-known story. It breathes life into characters whose names are already familiar, and makes Ancient Greece feel like a place where real people lived, loved and died.
Michelle Ryan, Second Secretary & Consul, Athens
Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Dr Elizabeth Pisani (2014)
Despite being the fourth-largest country in the world, Indonesia remains a bit of a mystery to outsiders. Indonesia, etc. gives us a well-informed glimpse into this fascinating country. The book details Pisani’s travels across Indonesia, capturing in vivid detail the extraordinary cultural diversity of the 17,000 islands that make up the archipelago. Her enthusiasm for Indonesia shines through as does her sense of humour and respect for Indonesian people. She does not however shy away from the challenges facing ordinary Indonesians or from the “improbable” nature of a state seeking post-colonial unity, amid extraordinary diversity. It is a testament to the book that I cannot pass the bookshelf where it lives without dreaming of hopping on a ferry for an adventure of my own.
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (2002)
Kurniawan is Indonesia’s modern literary star, although he is little known outside this country. Beauty is a Wound was written nearly 20 years ago but translated into English only in 2015. The novel follows the fortunes of the prostitute Dewi Ayu and her community during the formative years of the Indonesian state. The author’s use of the supernatural and nods towards traditional folk practices, as well as pulp and dark humour, make it a very enjoyable, if sometimes disturbing, read, which also feels uniquely Indonesian. At its heart, however, it is really a story about the violent legacy of colonialism, occupation and intra communal conflict in Indonesia, all of which continue to shape the modern, complex Indonesia.
Olivia Leslie, Ambassador, Jakarta
New Map Italy: Unforgettable Experiences for the Discerning Traveler by Herbert Ypma (2019)
New Map Italy by Herbert Ypma is a travel guide just as easily enjoyed from the couch as on the road. From southern Puglia to Gargnano on northern Lake Garda, some of Italy’s most attractive destinations are revealed with beautiful illustrations and colour photographs, highlighting some of the best that this beautiful country has to offer.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) and That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Gadda (1957)
A holiday in Italy may not be possible in the immediate future, but two lesser-known classics can transport you there through their pages: The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, and That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Gadda, translated by William Weaver. April will whisk you to a villa on the Italian Riviera, where you will smell the jasmine and feel the Mediterranean breeze cooling the sun on your face, as four ladies try to escape the mundanity of daily life in London. On the Via Merulana, you’ll be transported to 1930s Rome, as Detective Ingravallo, known as Don Ciccio, tries to solve an interlinked murder and a jewel heist, travelling from the well-to-do suburbs into the Roman countryside.
Chiara Popplewell, First Secretary, Rome
Voices of Jordan by Rana F Sweiss (2018)
One of the biggest challenges facing diplomats is to understand the people and cultural context of the countries in which we serve. I was fortunate, after arriving in Jordan to open a new embassy in 2019, to be introduced to Rana Sweis. Ms Sweis is a Jordanian journalist with a formidable reputation as one of the best international reporters in the Middle East.
Sweis gifted me a copy of her recently published Voices of Jordan. This well-written book offers an excellent overview of life in Jordan, as told by 10 different people from across Jordanian society. These include the life stories of a young female parliamentarian, a Syrian refugee, a member of the Jordanian armed forces, a political cartoonist and a fashion designer.
Across each chapter, these ordinary citizens share their perception of life in Jordan, how they see their history, how they value family and what fears they have for the future. The result is a gem of a book which presents a mosaic of political commentary, cultural diversity, insight into social circumstance and a great sense of the values, hopes and apprehensions that characterise the citizens of this resilient and complex country.
As a new resident of this wonderful country, and for any would-be traveller to this region, this book is a must. It delivers a vivid, revealing and accessible portrait of Jordanian lives, written with great sensitivity, and is a hugely enjoyable read.
Vincent O’Neill, Ambassador, Amman
Rainbow Nation My Zulu Arse by Sihle Khumalo (2018)
This is an entertaining yet profound read from the travel writer Sihle Khumalo whose journey across South Africa leads him to reflect on the historical characters and events that are memorialised and those that are not. He rails against the anglicisation of place names which render them meaningless and wonders when South Africa’s many towns and streets will be renamed in honour of resistance heroes. He questions the idealised dream of a rainbow nation when so much injustice and indignity is everywhere to be seen.
This is, despite his barely concealed frustration, a very funny book. His wit and humour finds expression in the interactions he has along the way, not to mention his many off-beams reflections as he spends extended time alone on the road. If you are looking for a guide to the Garden Route and the Stellenboch Winelands, this, perhaps, is not the book for you. But for those who are interested in South Africa in all its beauty and diversity, I recommend it highly.
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (2017)
Always Another Country is a travel book of another kind. It is a memoir written by Sisonke Msimang who, with her ANC parents, lived her childhood in exile. She was born in Zambia, and as a young child was surrounded by the charismatic characters of the ANC leadership. She moved to Canada, later to Kenya and finally to the US where she completed her education. Her integral political nurturing leads her to confront racism and injustice as she finds it. Arriving back in South Africa in the post-apartheid era, she is surprised by her sense of otherness; even home, it seems, is another country. Initially excited by the possibilities of a new South Africa, she candidly documents her own disappointments and growing sense of disillusionment. This is a wonderful coming of age memoir which tracks the life of a young woman and a nation, grappling with their own internal contradictions.
Fionnuala Gilsenan, Ambassador, Pretoria
Grape, Olive, Pig. Deep Travels through Spain’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding (2016)
Travel writer Matt Goulding brings readers on his journey across Spain, exploring the different tastes and smells of the country’s varied food and drink culture. Filled with tips and hidden delights, the book works through the different Spanish regions highlighting both the more widely known traditional dishes, as well as some of the more hidden delicacies. Through the pages, readers’ senses are assailed as the author also contextualises each meal in the local food and drink cultures, which vary right across Spain.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (2019)
On a late October evening, in the Spanish port of Algeciras, two friends, Maurice and Charlie, wait in the hope of encountering Maurice’s estranged daughter, Dilly. During the evening, the pair reflect on their time working in the drugs trade with conversations punctuated by flashbacks to events of the past.
Barry’s story is a raw demonstration of the devastating consequences of alienation, regret and destruction that stem from a life in the world of organised crime. The plot has echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the whole story rooted in a dialogue between two characters weighed to specific location. Beautifully written, in Barry’s very specific lyrical style, the reader becomes heavily invested in their story and the story of all of those that they loved.
Rory Geraghty, First Secretary, Madrid
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin (2007)
There are so many fascinating books on Turkish history and current affairs to choose from, but for summer reading I recommend Judith Herrin’s Byzantium – The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. While it is scholarly, it is not dry and the author doesn’t stint on the intrigues, plots and grisly murders that marked the 1,000 years of empire. She shows the importance of the eastern Roman capital as a light of civilisation in the East as the West slid into darkness – a beacon that the beautiful city of Istanbul remains today.
The book doesn’t take a usual chronological approach starting with Constantine and ending with Fatih Sultan Mehmed but rather Prof Herrin devotes chapters to the beauties of mosaics, the wonder that was Greek fire, and the introduction of cutlery. She brings to life and gives depth to a people who were at times arrogant, avaricious, discerning and obsessed with beauty. The book is learned but fresh and accessible and its subject intriguing. The twists and turns of the history of this remarkable society are like the book itself – exciting and unpredictable. It will stay with you.
Sonya McGuinness, Ambassador, Ankara
10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (2019)
The latest novel by Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s most well-known authors, is her finest. 10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World begins with the untimely death of the protagonist Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. The story traces her life and how it led to this tragic conclusion. We are gradually introduced to the supporting cast of colourful characters who populated Leila’s life and became her family. The power of friendship and the kindness of strangers is a dominant theme throughout, making this book an apt choice for 2020.
Shafak touches upon topics that may seem heavy for a summer read (violence against women, sex work, trans rights) but they are woven into the story among moments of such light, joy and whimsy that it does not overwhelm.
Each section is linked to a significant point in Turkish history and the story unfolds against the backdrop of Istanbul, an enthralling and historic city that needs to be experienced first-hand, even if only to understand why people speak of it in such reverential tones. Like magnificent Istanbul, Shafak’s book brims with excitement, chaos and above all - life!
Jenny Quinn, Second Secretary & Consul, Ankara
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The Nabati Poetry of the UAE, edited by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera (2011)
The Emiratis are a Bedouin people and, over the centuries, their stories, spoken rather than written, have been handed down through a tradition of storytelling at the Majlis, or meeting place, in desert tents and around evening campfires. As the oral tradition has faded, however, efforts have been made in recent years to capture these stories and to put them down on paper.
Poetry has long been the favoured literary form of the Arab world and for readers who want to better understand the people and the culture of the Gulf, I recommend dipping into The Nabati Poetry of the UAE, edited by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera. Nabati is primarily a spoken form of poetry, known as the people’s poetry, and these are the people’s stories, beautifully told in their own dialects.
From Rags to Riches – A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed Al-Fahim (1995)
Mohammad Al Fahim’s much-loved book From Rags to Riches – A Story of Abu Dhabi is first and foremost his own life story but it is also the story of the UAE, founded in 1972, and the transformation of its capital, Abu Dhabi, from a small village of pearl-divers to the economic and political powerhouse that it is today. As Expo 2020 Dubai draws nearer (although now postponed to October 2021 due to Covid-19), this is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand this young country, giving a unique and revealing insight into the UAE, its history, its people and its founding fathers.
Aidan Cronin, Ambassador, Abu Dhabi
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Grant by Ron Chernow (2017); Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W Blight (2018); Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell (2017); Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies by Gordon Corera (2020)
I confess that none of my American book recommendations are beachy summer reads. They reflect what I’ve been reading this past four months. All are chunky volumes, too heavy for a holiday suitcase and they might look a bit odd on a Mediterranean lilo. But Irish Times readers holidaying at home this summer could chuck them in the boot of the car and read them on the porch of a holiday home or inside on a wet day.
My recent reading has included Ron Chernow’s Grant, his monumental biography Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow is best-known as the biographer of Alexander Hamilton which inspired the hit musical. Grant was a failure early in life, then a winning Civil War general and ultimately a two-term US president. Chernow seeks to restore the reputation of Grant’s presidency and records how he laboured valiantly, but ultimately failed, to enforce post-civil war reconstruction on the defeated southern states, some of whose people violently resisted granting civic equality to freed slaves.
At a time when racial equality is in the spotlight across the US, I have also been reading David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, about the 19th century former slave and dedicated abolitionist who paid a visit to Ireland in 1845 where he met Daniel O’Connell and witnessed the early stages of the Great Famine.
And in this US election year, I have delved into a pacey account of the turbulent 1968 election campaign, Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by MSNBC anchor, Lawrence O’Donnell. This book is a terrific read, full of fascinating detail about that year of assassinations (of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King), violent protests and a frenetic, topsy-turvy election campaign resulting in the triumph of Richard Nixon.
Having watched the TV series The Americans during the lockdown, I couldn’t resist the real-life tale of the embedding by Soviet intelligence of “illegals” in America, Gordon Corera’s Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. The story is of course less dramatic than portrayed on TV, and the results of the Soviet operation seem to have been very modest as the “illegals” were under FBI observation throughout. The book does, however, confirm the ambitious audacity of what was being attempted and the extraordinary willingness of those involved to leave their home and families and create false lives for themselves in America.
Dan Mulhall, Ambassador, Washington D.C.
Pigeon by Alys Conran (2016)
Although much travel will only be in our imagination this year, Wales is right there beside us, waiting to be explored. Alys Conran’s Pigeon brilliantly evokes the landscape and community of the North Wales Mountains and valleys but creates no false idylls. The eponymous Pigeon is growing up in a closely woven village with little time for this overlooked bird. Words are his talismans and language itself plays an important role in this sharply observed coming of age tale. Unusually, it was published simultaneously in its original English and translated Welsh versions. As Pigeon’s misdirected rage and wild imagination combine to overwhelm several lives, this vivid portrait of place and people won’t be easily forgotten.
Denise Hanrahan, Consul General, Cardiff