Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Club Explores Egypt...and psst...Napoleon Lives In Tumwater!

Above: David Markham shows book club members at Fireside Bookstore some items from his personal Napoleonic collection. The group was discussing its January book selection, "Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt."

By Janine Gates

One way to escape South Sound's cold, rainy weather is to travel to somewhere warm, say, Egypt. That's what I've done. But if you don't have the time or money, you could participate with one of several local book clubs. I mentally went back to Egypt this last month by reading Fireside Bookstore's January book club selection, "Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt," by Nina Burleigh.

Jane Laclergue, owner of Fireside Bookstore located in the historic Hotel Olympian downtown at 116 Legion Way, says the group picks unusual books and ones selected by the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. "They are almost always very interesting," says Laclergue. Newcomers are always welcome to the group.

The book captures the story of Napoleon's effort in 1798 to take more than 150 French engineers, artists, naturalists, doctors, astronomers, along with 50,000 troops, on what would be a three year effort to conquer Egypt and document Egyptian life there. This invasion would detail the first large scale interaction between Europeans and Muslims. Those who survived the expedition produced a documentation of Egypt such as buildings, rocks, people, plants, animals, flowers, birds, bugs, fish and more.

I bought the book at Fireside and went to the meeting, along with 12 others who were in various stages of either having finished the book or somewhere in-between. Although I was only 45 pages into it by the time the meeting occurred, my specific interest in the area led me to join in on the discussion.

My children and I, in our trip to Egypt during the summer of 2008, saw the actual drawings and engravings of these scientists on display in the library in Alexandria.

Perhaps more important than the actual subject matter of the book, however, was the refreshing and respectful camaraderie of the book club members, who shared personal stories, perspectives and opinions on how the book captured their attention, or not.

"I didn't find it exactly a page-turner...I felt like I was reading a text book but I learned a lot from reading it," said one bookclub member.

"I enjoyed the book - I saw this in the context of France and England - it was a race for India," said another.

At this particular meeting, members commented on how the book parallels in time to contemporary issues - things leaders do that are corrupt to occupy and plunder foreign lands.

Members highlighted and debated certain portions of the book. Abandoned by Napoleon years earlier, the French scientists were finally about to set sail for France, but were intercepted by the British. The scientists threatened to destroy everything instead of letting it all fall into the hands of the British. Through last minute negotiations, they were allowed to keep their work. All that was taken from them was the Rosetta Stone, which is now in the British Museum.

Thought-provoking questions were posed to the group by Laclergue and others to help move the discussion along. Would the scientists have really destroyed all their work that they had spent three years drawing, writing and collecting?

"Their treasures were their drawings. Yes, they would have destroyed them," said one.

"I don't think they would have," said another.

"It's ego over truth. I'd like to think truth would win," said another.

"Aren't there many truths?" said another.

"Aren't there as many truths as there are people?" asked yet another.

The group also debated the means by which things are discovered, such as the Rosetta Stone. Was it worth it? There were no right or wrong answers, of course.

By 9:00 p.m., book club members continued their discussions as they slowly filtered out into the night, and looked forward to their next meeting.

The next book club meeting at Fireside will be February 4, 7:00 p.m., to discuss “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” by Jamie Ford, which is set in Seattle's International District. If that’s too soon for you, the March book club meeting will be March 4, 7:00 p.m., to discuss “Ayatollah Begs To Differ,” by Hooman Majd. You need not have completely read the books to participate.

I have since finished Burleigh’s book and certainly have a better appreciation for the drawings I saw in Alexandria. As for the book club, it’s a good feeling to support a local business and unlike the Timberland Regional Library System, Fireside Bookstore is open on Sundays and late on weekdays.

Above: Tristan Gates' nose is in much better shape than the Sphinx's. And to address the often-repeated myth, no, Napoleon's troops are not responsible for blowing off the Sphinx's nose. That was accomplished by an Arab who chipped it off in the 14th century. Napoleon's troops, however, did happen upon the Sphinx, who was then buried up to his chin in sand.

And psst...Napoleon Lives In Tumwater!

Two book club members who attended Fireside Bookstore’s January meeting to discuss “Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt,” by Nina Burleigh were David and Barbara Markham of Tumwater.

David Markham wore a sweatshirt that said, on the front, “Napoleon’s World Tour.” On the back was a listing of countries and a big CANCELLED notice emblazoned across the names.

It turns out, the Markham’s had more than a passing interest in this particular book club selection. David Markham is none other than a world-renowned Napoleonic historian and scholar, president of the International Napoleonic Society, and author of at least eight books on Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Markham’s took exception to Burleigh’s treatment of Napoleon, which they felt was one-sided. For the Markham’s, Napoleon was not just a military leader. In his relatively short 15 year term of power, he was a leader who instituted a wide range of legal, economic, education, social and religious reforms, many of which are still in place today in France and Europe. “Napoleon was only 29 years old at the height of his power…think of him as an Eisenhower, Pattin, Patraeus, Roosevelt, or even an Obama of his time,” said Markham.

The Markham’s brought with them several items for show and tell, including period engravings, books, and intricate snuff boxes made of wood, bone, ivory and gold. The interest in the items, and David Markham’s obvious passion to share his knowledge led him to invite the book club group members to his home for a private tour of his Napoleonic collection. The date was set. I felt fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

The Markham Collection

Above: David Markham of Tumwater shows off his Napoleonic collection.

The Markham’s Tumwater home features an outstanding, varied collection of Napoleonic items, pretty impressive for a “middle class” collector, as David describes himself.

“Forgive me if I seem not too humble, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of this nature anywhere else….” Markham feels that each of his collection pieces compliments the other.

“You put it all together and what I like about it is that each piece gives you a style of the period without being overwhelmed.” His collection includes porcelains, bronze statues, engravings, snuff boxes, and books. Markham estimates that he has about 1,100 books on Napoleon.

Above: Napoleonic porcelain statues. I asked Markham how his collection fared during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. He said he was lucky and everything did remarkably well. These statues, however, all shifted to one side of the display case, "as if they were all huddled together for body warmth," Markham laughed. Now, these guys are fixed firmly in place with museum wax, ready to do battle with the Big One.

“You know, Napoleon was the ultimate spin-meister. Images of his great victories were produced very soon, within weeks, of a campaign, and people would be selling the engravings. Medallions would be produced almost immediately. They were trendy, popular and affordable. In the 18th century, it was not uncommon to go into someone’s home and see Napoleon’s image everywhere. After 1815, it was illegal to have anything Napoleonic in your house. I would have been shot on sight,” Markham laughed.

A former high school teacher, Markham, 64, clearly loved playing host, animatedly telling us stories of how he came to start his collection and find various pieces. His wife, Barbara Markham, an assistant attorney general, has served as editor for all of his books. Clearly, she is a full partner in the passion.

At first, Barbara told David that the kitchen was off-limits to any Napoleonic reference, but as David loved to point out, as he continued his tour of their two story house, no room or wall is left untouched. The kitchen contained an enormous poster of Napoleon featuring a tiny Starbucks logo and other not so discreet intrusions.

Markham, the author of several award-winning, heavily academic books on Napoleon, and a featured expert on the History Channel, National Geographic, and the Learning and Discovery Channel, is also, surprisingly, the author of “Napoleon For Dummies.” Yes, it’s one of those yellow and black covered books published by the same company that has a series of “…for Dummies” books.

“I was asked to write a sample chapter by the Wiley publishing company so I wrote one on Waterloo and they accepted it. They have a template for their books and you just plug in the information,” Markham explained. His sense of humor and flair for dramatic storytelling shows in the book. It is academically accessible for all ages, and his style makes it fun to learn more about this leader.

“I admit Napoleon is seen with mixed emotions, yes, even by me….In France, some idolize him but they also recognize that he failed and the borders were reduced in 1815,” Markham says. “Napoleon was known to say, ‘I won 100 battles and they were all made meaningless by Waterloo.’ But he was brilliant. He was the father of modern Europe.”

Above: A bronze bust of Napoleon.

So, how is Napoleon relevant today? I asked Markham.

“Well, the obvious cliché is that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it,” says Markham. “Look at George Bush. If he had won ‘hearts and minds’ and showed more cultural sensitivity, he would have gotten a lot farther. Over 400 generals quit over Iraq under GW. Napoleon is relevant today because he envisioned a European Union, one language, one currency, instituted reforms and promoted religious balance - he was the main force against anti-Semitism, making Jewish people full citizens of France. He even wrote a proclamation that established the idea of a Jewish homeland. He removed the Catholic Church as a form of government, separated church and state, and made it clear that it was a different ballgame. He wasn’t afraid to raise taxes, invest in infrastructure and keep people safe. He promoted free trade with Europe. He would have very much been a supporter of universal health care.”

Markham is currently working on several projects, including more book and article writing and organizing the next International Napoleonic Congress, to be held in Malta in July.

In what seems to be an understatement, says Barbara Markham, “I’ve enjoyed the hobby also and proud of what David has done with it - we’ve met counts and princes…we’ve had a much more interesting life because of Napoleon.”

Above: Napoleon probably never could have imagined today's encroaching development upon the Giza Plateau, above, just a little over 200 years after his arrival in Egypt. During Napoleon's time, the only way from Cairo to Giza was by boat!