Books I’ve Read This Week: The Audible Daily Deal

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 32: The Audible Daily Deal In addition to reading traditional books and e-books, I have been enjoying listening to audio books over the course of the year. I have a subscription to Audible and I have discovered new books through their daily deals. When I see a book that looks interesting on sale there, I add it to my reading list! The result has been the expansion of my reading choices in a wide variety of genres including both historical and current memoirs, mysteries, popular science, and art history inspired historical fiction. Here are this week’s reviews:

#218 of 365 The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

Genre: Memoir

Date Listened: August 5-6, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 33 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: I thought the premise for this book was interesting. The author decided to restrict her spending to essentials for a year and found that this process resulted in other improvements in her life. The book was different than I expected though. I thought that there would be a blend of memoir and the author’s reflections on consumerism and society. Instead, the book is strictly a memoir with some tips at the end for those inclined to undertake a similar challenge. There are numerous sections concerning the author’s family and her other struggles with overindulgence that are interesting but do not relate directly to consumer culture. The author is Canadian and I enjoyed reading the references to Victoria, Kingston and other Canadian cities. Engaging but not quite what I expected.

#219 of 365 The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Mystery of 1920s Bombay by Sujata Massey

Genre: Mystery

Date Listened: August 6-9, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 34 minutes

Review: An richly textured novel, and the 1st volume in a new mystery series inspired by the career of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer. Massey evokes the culture of 1920s Bombay with its wide variety of religions, cultures and views about the role of women in society. Perveen Mistry is an engaging heroine, working as a solicitor in her father’s law firm and collecting testimony and evidence from women in seclusion. A case concerning the inheritance of three widows quickly expands to encompass murder and kidnapping. There is also a harrowing back story concerning Perveen’s disastrous early marriage. Perveen is surrounded by interesting characters including Alice Hobson-Jones, her outspoken best friend from her legal studies at Oxford. The audiobook narrator reads a little too melodramatically as the narrator but does well with the dialogue.

#220 of 365 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan

Genre: Popular Science

Dates Listened: August 9-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 31 minutes

Review: A very enjoyable audiobook, bursting with enthusiasm about the universe and intellectual curiosity about new discoveries and what else might be out there waiting to be discovered. The sections about comets as well as the discoveries by the Voyager spacecraft were especially interesting. Since the book was first published in 1980, there are some dated references to the Cold War as an ongoing event. Sagan’s enthusiasm for reaching out to possible extraterrestrial life also seems a little dated today as other scientists have argued that a first contact of this kind could be disastrous for humanity. Well read by LeVar Burton. Includes an introduction by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

#221 of 365 The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: August 12-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 13 hours and 36 minutes

Review: An enjoyable novel inspired by the parents of Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro whose marriage caused a scandal in the small Jewish community on the Island of St. Thomas. The descriptions of the island are lush and detailed, including turtles nesting on the beach and pirate wives growing avocado trees along the coast. I especially liked the opening chapters about Rachel Pomier’s childhood and the difficulties that she faced as a young woman in a male dominated society. The chapters focused on her son Camille Pissarro’s youth were less interesting to me as there was a strong focus on him investigating family secrets rather than his development as an artist. The connection between Rachel and her friend Jestine, confirmed near the end of the novel was unsurprising, considering previous events. The novel ends with a afterword that explains the history that informs the historical fiction.

#222 of 365 No Time to Spare by Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: August 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 6 hours and 33 minutes

Review: I enjoyed reading Ursula Le Guin’s essays about writing, feminism, childhood and growing older. She begins with her invitation to her 60th reunion at Harvard (she attended Harvard’s sister school, Radcliffe College) and considers the life events that take place over a 60 year period. There is an amusing essay about the fan mail she receives from children who often say they are her “hugest fan.” In my opinion, there were a few too many essays about her cat but cat owners will probably disagree! The essays are well read by Barbara Caruso on the audiobook.

#223 of 365 The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

Genre: History

Date Listened: August 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 31 minutes

Review:  An overview of the political and intellectual history of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt. The authors observe that “The Ptolemies wanted to know everything, not just their own history and religious texts.” The library at Alexandria played a key role in the development of Christianity by translating Hebrew religious texts. Interesting to hear about ideas from Alexandria that had a lasting impact on subsequent history, such as the Julian calendar, brought back from Egypt by Julius Caesar during his relationship with Queen Cleopatra VII. There are also examples of inventions that were ahead of their time that would be taken up again centuries later. The book ends with the tragic fate of the philosopher Hypatia and the decline of Alexandria as an intellectual centre. Both the text and the narration of the audiobook are sometimes a bit dry but the inventions and events discussed are fascinating.

#224 of 365 Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Genre: History/Memoir

Date Listened: August 16, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: One of the most famous memoirs in American history. Renowned educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, described his determination to acquire an education and improve the lives of other African-Americans. The early chapters are especially compelling as Washington describes the bleak conditions of slavery then the obstacles he faced to continuing his education during Reconstruction. The narrative is infused with his drive to succeed and a very positive attitude, considering the circumstances of the times. He describes how as a child, “I began to get together my 1st library. I secured a dry goods box, knocked out 1 side of it, put some shelves in it and began putting into it every kind of book that I could get my hands upon.” The later chapters of the book are focused Tuskegee Institute. An interesting and historically significant book.

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The Romanovs and The Russian Revolution: My Fall 2018 course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, Empress Alexandra and their five children (clockwise from left), Maria, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexei in 1913. The Imperial Family was murdered 100 years ago in 1918.

I will be teaching an eight week course about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution from October 2 until November 20, 2018 from 2-4pm at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.

Click here for more information and to register

 

Course Description: The consequences of the Russian Revolution continue to influence Russia’s politics and society, and indeed the whole world’s. In 2017, Russia quietly marked the 100th anniversary of the turning points: the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and Lenin’s seizure of power for the Bolshevik party. Follow the quick succession of crises: the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, the emergence of the Provisional Government, the end of Russia’s participation in the First World War, and the fateful rise of Lenin and the Soviet Union.

What You’ll Learn:
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Books I’ve Read This Week: American History and Literature

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 31: American History and Literature: In addition to reading about Queen and Empresses, I have been reading a blend of history and historical fiction in recent weeks with an American theme. The non-fiction focuses on women in American history including a book on Sally Hemings and her family at Monticello in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a history of the role of American women in code breaking during the Second World War, a biography of the last Queen of Hawaii and a biography of etiquette expert Emily Post. The historical fiction imagines the lives of May Alcott, the younger sister of Louisa May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in Little Women, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop, who was one of the first settlers in Puritan Massachusetts and a Nigerian perspective on race and society in the modern United States.  Here are this week’s reviews:

#211 of 365 The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Genre: History

Dates Listened: July 22-July 27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 30 hours and 40 minutes

Review: An extensively researched and nuanced history of the Hemings family at Monticello. While Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are well known, Gordon-Reed also reconstructs the lives of Sally Hemings’ mother Elizabeth, who was of African and English descent, her siblings including Paris trained chef James Hemings who comes to a tragic end, and her extended family.

The author examines a wide variety of surviving evidence including the reminiscences of Sally Hemings’s son Madison Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence and papers and archaeological excavations of Elizabeth Hemings’s cabin. When there are gaps in the source material, Gordon-Reed outlines various possibilities shaped by the conditions of the time and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is not only a family saga but an examination of slavery, the position of women, and the law in colonial America and revolutionary Paris. The book ends with the sale of Monticello and I would have been interested to read more about subsequent generations in the Hemings family.

#212 of 365 The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 27-30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Paperback, 27 hours and 33 minutes

Review:  A richly detailed classic historical novel about Elizabeth Fones, one of the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony whose controversial third marriage scandalized Puritan New England. As in her most famous novel Katherine, Seton devotes much attention to the society and culture of the times, paying special attention to the subtle religious differences within communities as well as larger, more well known conflicts. The characters include Elizabeth Fones herself, the poet Anne Bradstreet and religious leader Anne Hutchinson. There are even cameo appearances by King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria and the founder of New France, Samuel de Champlain, who are all critical of the Puritans.

There is so much history in the novel that Elizabeth and her strong personality sometimes fade in the background in the middle of the novel, especially during the scenes concerning Anne Hutchinson, who commands the attention of the reader as well as her contemporaries. Even when the novel meanders away from the main character and her story, The Winthrop Woman remains engaging because Elizabeth Fones lived in such tumultuous times and Anya Seton has researched Stuart England and Colonial America extensively.

#213 of 365 The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the artist May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in her older sister Louisa’s famous novel, Little Women. The novel begins with the publication of Little Women, which receives excellent reviews except for May’s illustrations, which are dismissed as amateur. May is determined to be taken seriously for her art and studies in England and France, eventually having her work accepted in major exhibitions. The cast of characters includes a variety of 19th century women artists, both famous and more obscure, including Mary Cassatt, Princess Louise, Marie Bashkirtseff and Berthe Morisot.

Hooper provides an engaging portrait of both the complicated relationship between Louisa and May and the conflict between artistic fulfillment and earning a living that many authors and artists face. May has great ambitions to become a professional artist and have a happy and fulfilling personal life, seeking to be successful in all aspects of life during a time when women were encouraged to have more modest expectations. An engaging read about a little known artist and her famous family.

#214 of 365 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Date Listened: July 31-August 1, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 28 minutes

Review: An insightful novel about race and cultural differences between the United States and Nigeria. Ifemelu moves to the United States to study and becomes a popular blogger on race. She observes how the blog comes to shape her life, noting, “Now that she was asked to speak at roundtables and panels, on public radio and community radio,always identified simply as The Blogger, she felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog.” Her observations are fascinating and cover everything from the differences between how the English language is spoken in Nigeria and America, food, customer service and education as well as race and society. There are also some incisive comments on the influence of blogging and social media. Highly recommended.

#215 of 365 Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy

Genre: History

Date Read: August 2-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 4 minutes

Review: An interesting book about the little known American female code breakers of the Second World War and their impact on the course of the war in the Pacific. Mundy covers a lot of topics including American attitudes toward higher education for women in the 1940s, the nature of codebreaking, the role of women in the Allied war effort and daily life for individual code breakers. There are some fascinating women profiled in the book including Dorothy Braden, who was running a high school almost singlehandedly until she had the opportunity to turn her talents to codebreaking and Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye, the mother of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The structure of the book sometimes jumps around between these topics, moving quickly from historical overviews of the war and codebreaking to the experiences of individual women but overall, a fascinating book.

#216 of 365 Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 415 pages

Review: Lost Kingdom is not just a biography of Queen Liliʻuokalani but a history of 19th century Hawaii and how the islands were ultimately annexed by the United States against the wishes of the Hawaiian people. Siler places Hawaii within the wider context of colonialism in the Pacific as Britain, France and Germany claimed other Pacific islands and the United States argued that Hawaii, its sugar plantations and its naval base at Pearl Harbour, were too important to be allowed to remain under the authority of Queen Liliʻuokalani. Once the annexation was complete, former President Grover Cleveland stated, “Hawai’i is ours…as I contemplate the means used to complete the outrage,I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Liliʻuokalani emerges as a proud and complicated figure shaped by both Hawaiian court traditions and an education in missionary schools. Siler provides a detailed overview of how Liliʻuokalani was perceived in the United States within the context of the racial prejudices of the late 19th century. I would have been interested to read more about Liliʻuokalani’s attendance at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and how she was perceived in Britain during the celebrations. A compelling read.

#217 of 365 Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased at Book City, Toronto

Date Read: August 6, 2018

Format: Paperback, 525 pages

Review: This comprehensive biography of Emily Post begins slowly, placing her parents within the wider context of the gilded age then gains momentum, examining Emily’s work as a novelist, businesswoman and etiquette expert within the context of the rapidly changing social mores of the 1920s and 1930s. Post belonged to an accomplised family. Her father, Bruce Price, designed the Chateau Frontenac and other Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels and stations and was even mistaken for the Duke of Connaught during a Canadian royal tour.

Emily suffered from setbacks in her personal life. Despite her interest in architecture, her gender and social class precluded her joining her father in business and her marriage ended in divorce. After the end of her marriage, she became a prolific writer who was always sensitive to the changing times. Some of the most interesting sections of the book concern how her etiquette advice altered and expanded as the years passed. She revised her Etiquette guides, removing sections on chaperones and adding advice for conversing with airplane seatmates. Post’s life and advice are interspersed with the history of New York and the major historical events of her lifetime. A fascinating read.

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BBC Interview: Theresa May and the art of the curtsy

Theresa May

I discussed the history political figures curtsying (or not curtsying) to members of the royal family with BBC News. British Prime Minister Theresa May has attracted attention for her low curtsies. In contrast, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard declined to curtsey when the Queen visited Australia.

Click here to read “Theresa May and the art of the curtsy” at BBC News

 

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Town&Country Interview: Why Princess Eugenie’s Children Likely Won’t Have Titles

Princess Eugenie

I discussed Princess Eugenie’s upcoming wedding and titles for any future children with Town&Country. Since royal titles are passed through the male line, it is unlikely that her children will have titles unless her husband Jack Brooksbank receives an earldom from the Queen.

Click here to read “Why Princess Eugenie’s Children Likely Won’t Have Titles” in Town&Country

My interview with Town&Country was also quoted in The Daily Express

 

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Queens and Empresses

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 30: Queens and Empresses: In recent weeks, I have been reading extensively about one of my favourite topics, the political and cultural influence of royal women. I will be delivering a lecture about Catherine the Great and the Hermitage later this month as part of a royal history lecture series on a Baltic Sea cruise and I have therefore been reading extensively about Catherine’s famous art collection. I am also working on a feature article about royal wedding dresses to be published in time for Princess Eugenie’s wedding this October, and so I have been reading more about royal fashions from the eighteenth century to the present day. I also recently read three more titles from the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power series. Here are this week’s reviews:

#204 of 365 Royal Women and Dynastic Loyalty edited by Caroline Dunn and Elizabeth Carney

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 207 pages

Acquired: Borrowed From Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review: A collection of articles about royal women and their contributions to royal dynasties from classical times to the 19th century. While there are familiar figures examined in this volume, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James I’s queen, Anna of Denmark, most of the contributors examine comparatively overlooked figures. There are chapters concerning Empress Elizabeth Christine (the mother of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the grandmother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France), and the little known royal women of the 17th century Ottoman Empire who served as stabilizing figures during an uncertain time for their ruling house. 

The authors draw conclusions that continue to be relevant to the history of monarchical government, women and power, and royal court culture. For example, in her chapter on Queenship and the Currency of Arts Patronage as Propaganda at the Early Stuart Court, Wendy Hitchmough observes that royal palaces continue to be sites of national identity and memory, as demonstrated by the recent Remembrance Day poppies installation at the Tower of London and the role of Kensington Palace as a site for mourning Diana, Princess of Wales.

Since the book is based on a series of conference papers, the chapters are short and sometimes end abruptly, especially the opening chapter about King’s Daughters, Sisters, and Wives: Fonts and Conduits of Power and Legitimacy by Waldemar Heckel. I hope that the contributors will expand their research into longer articles and books as the chapters in this volume examine important and often overlooked historical figures and their contributions to dynastic legitimacy.

#205 of 365 The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

Genre: Biography/Art History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review:The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great’s art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style, and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great’s reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city, Catherine the Great’s influence on architecture, and her role in setting wider cultural trends.

In addition to detailing Catherine’s cultural activities, Jaques explains the ultimate fate of the paintings acquired by the Empress. While some of Catherine’s purchases remain on display at the Hermitage museum, her grandson Czar Nicholas I sold some of the pieces that he judged to be inferior while other acquisitions were destroyed by fire or sold to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the Soviet period. 

Unfortunately, there are some historical errors sprinkled throughout the book, especially toward the beginning and end. The errors concern names, dates, and, most often, the family relationships between royal personages. (For example, Maria Josepha was Maria Theresa’s daughter, not her daughter-in-law. A daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor did not marry a czar, as stated in the book. Instead, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor married a Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III. The title of czar was not in use until their grandson’s reign.) While these errors do not undermine Jaques’s overall argument that Catherine was a key cultural patron with a lasting legacy in a number of different spheres, they are distracting for the reader.

The Empress of Art is an engaging biography of Catherine the Great as a cultural patron that is especially useful for visitors to Saint Petersburg and the city’s Hermitage Museum. Includes illustrations of key paintings and architecture from Catherine’s reign.

#206 of 365 Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe edited by Helen Matheson-PollockJoanne Paul and Catherine Fletcher 

Genre: History

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Format: E-Book, 291 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles about how early modern queens exercised and received political counsel. The book includes fresh perspectives on Tudor and early Stuart era queens who are often reduced to one dimensional portrayals in the popular imagination.

For example, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, closely associated with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V because of the circumstances of the breakdown of her marriage, in fact had a more complicated attitude toward English foreign policy and was not always perceived as placing Spain’s interests first. Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France, famous for marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and incurring the King’s displeasure in fact remained closely interested in Anglo-French relations for the rest of her life, and attempted to maintain her own network of connections during her brief marriage to Louis XII. Mary, Queen of Scots paid careful attention to her household, avoiding appointing the wives of privy Councillors to attend her in a personal capacity in an attempt to separate her public and private spheres. Queen Elizabeth I made use of her classical education to affirm her authority over male Councillors.

In addition to chapters reassessing well known queens, there is analysis of little known queens consort and the manner in which they exerted political influence. The book’s focus on the early modern period allows for exploration of how royal women’s roles were passed through the generations. For example, there is a chapter about Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland followed by a chapter about her daughter, Catherine Jagiellon, Queen of Sweden, two queens consort who deserve to be more well known. The book comes together as a cohesive whole, with parallels drawn between the various queens discussed in individual sections and wider conclusions presented about the range of roles for a queen in the sixteenth century. Highly recommended for scholars and general readers interested in early modern queenship.

#207 of 365 Queens Matter in Early Modern Studies edited by Anna Riehl Bertolet

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 399 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: July 28-August 2, 2018

Review: A collection of scholarly essays dedicated to Carole Levin, the co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power book series. I am honoured that my own book is mentioned in Charles Beem’s essay concerning the development of the series, which states, “…Carolyn Harris’s Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, a provocative comparative study of two queens who suffered miserably at the hands of revolutionary ideologies.” The chapters are divided by theme, presenting a broad range of perspectives on early modern queenship, especially the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. I found the chapters about Elizabeth I’s role as a godparent (she had at least 114 godchildren over the course of her reign including John Harington, inventor of the flush toilet), and the comparisons between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots especially fascinating. An interesting and informative read.

#208 of 365 Catherine the Great: Art for Empire: Masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Genre: Art History

Date Read: July 30, 2018

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 328 pages

Review: The book that accompanied the 2005 Catherine the Great exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A nice balance between beautiful illustrations of works of art collected and commissioned by Catherine the Great, and insightful essays about the different facets of her role as patron of arts. The art historians focus on the variety of different art forms in Catherine’s collection including paintings, sculpture and cameos, her motives for amassing such an extensive art collection, and the question of whether she possessed good taste or was simply a “glutton for art” who bought large collections without considering the merits of the individual works. The essays concerning her patronage of women artists including Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and Marie-Anne Collot are especially interesting. I would have been interested to read a concluding essay about the expansion of the Hermitage museum’s collection after Catherine the Great’s reign.

#209 of 365 The Royal Wedding Dresses by Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner 

Genre: History and Fashion

Date Read: August 2, 2018

Acquired: Read at Toronto Reference Library

Genre: Hardcover, 176 pages

Review: A beautifully illustrated history of royal wedding fashion from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Although the title suggests that the book examines wedding dresses alone, the authors also look at the fashions worn by royal bridegrooms, bridesmaids and guests. There are some fascinating examples of royal brides adapting traditional bridal fashions to reflect their own preferences including Queen Marie of Romania choosing a tulle veil instead of the wedding lace favoured by most of Queen Victoria’s descendants, and her cousin Princess Margaret of Connaught choosing an Irish made gown embroidered with shamrocks to reflect her happy memories of spending time in Ireland as a child. I would be interested to read an updated edition that includes the last few decades of royal wedding fashion.

#210 of 365 Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 299 pages

Review: An excellent read, especially in tandem with Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution by Caroline Weber. Bashor examines the life and hair-raising exploits of Leonard Autie, who rose from obscure origins in Gascony to become Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser and confidant. Both the hairdresser and Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Rose Bertin, became recognizable public figures in their own right and were nicknamed Ministers of Fashion, setting precedents for future celebrity stylists and fashion designers.

I especially enjoyed the chapters about the Flight to Varennes, where Leonard acted as a secret messenger for the King and Queen, and his brother may have unwittingly foiled the royal family’s plan to flee France. Leonard had a long career after the French Revolution, styling the hair of the Russian Imperial family, including the murdered Czar Paul I for his state funeral. Marie Antoinette’s Head is lavishly illustrated with images from the French archives of Marie Antoinette, her family and her famous hairstyles. Highly recommended.

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Marie Claire Interview: Here’s Why Meghan Markle Wears So Many Dresses with Pockets

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

My Daily Express interview concerning the Duchess of Sussex’s dresses has been featured in a piece for the Marie Claire magazine website.

Click here to read Here’s Why Meghan Markle Wears So Many Dresses with Pockets at Marie Claire.

 

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Daily Express Article: Duchess of Sussex Birthday: Why Meghan Chooses to Wear Dresses with Pockets

Meghan Markle

I discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s recent fashion choices with the Daily Express. In recent months, Meghan has worn a number of dresses with pockets and I speculated that she may be subtly encouraging the fashion industry to provide more functional clothing for women through her fashion choices.

Click here to read “Meghan Markle birthday: Why Meghan chooses to wear dresses with pockets” in the Daily Express

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Daily Express Interview: Meghan Markle: What was Meghan’s New Zealand symbol on her wedding veil?

Kowhai flowers

I discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding veil with the Daily Express. Meghan chose floral symbols from the Commonwealth nations for the embroidery on her veil. While the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge have both worn fern brooches during their visits to New Zealand, the Duchess of Sussex chose a different emblem to symbolize New Zealand: the kowhai bloom, considered to be the country’s unofficial flower.

Click here to read Meghan Markle: What was Meghan’s New Zealand symbol on her wedding veil? in the Daily Express

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Extraordinary Canadians

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 29: Extraordinary Canadians: Before 2018, I had read and enjoyed two of the biographies in the eighteen volume Extraordinary Canadians series, Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray and Lucy Maud Montgomery,by Jane Urquhart. In recent weeks, I have read seven more books in the series, gaining new perspectives on Canadian history and learning more about important historical figures. Here are this week’s reviews:

#197 of 365 Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 185 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 19, 2018

Review: A short biography of Canadian artist Emily Carr, structured as a series of essays about her life and times, including the influence of post-Impressionism on her work, the conflict between marriage and creative expression for women of her time, her engagement with the First Nations communities who inspired her work and the recognition that she received as an artist and writer later in life. While Emily Carr led a very interesting life, some of the chapters in the book were repetitive instead of exploring these themes in detail and the further reading section was too short. The author is an artist who did not initially like Carr’s work but came to appreciate her art after seeing the landscapes depicted in her paintings.

#198 of 365 Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 174 pages

Review: I have read and admire a number of Margaret Macmillan’s historical works including Women of the Raj, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace and I enjoyed Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town so I loved reading a blend of MacMillan’s scholarship and Leacock’s humour. Macmillan not only captures the essence of Leacock’s personality with its blend of intellect, humour and melancholy but also gives a good overview of his times and Canada’s gradual emergence from the British Empire. The narrative includes quotations from Leacock’s famous and lesser known works, showing the range of his opinions and work as “a public intellectual in a country that was not yet used to having them.” Highly recommended.

#199 of 365 Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 200 pages

Review: Lord Beaverbrook is the only Canadian to be mentioned in Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix (in a scene where the former King Edward VIII lists his friends in Britain) and author David Adams Richards observes that he was one of the most important and influential Canadians in a global context over the course of the 20th century. This short biography provides an interesting and enthusiastic overview of his life, achievements and shortcomings. The author’s opinions, however, sometimes overwhelm the narrative. Both Richards and Beaverbrook grew up in the same town in New Brunswick and Richards often attributes opinions to Beaverbrook based entirely on his own experiences of the culture of small town New Brunswick. A good read but the author’s asides about how things are done in Miramichi are sometimes distracting from the overall biography.

#200 of 365 Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin by John Ralston Saul

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 22, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 272 pages

Review: An excellent dual biography of two Canadian political figures who deserve to be better known for their development of the reform movement for Responsible Government and other contributions to modern Canadian politics, education and society. John Ralston Saul presents the closely intertwined personal and political lives of Baldwin and LaFontaine. They were both surrounded by strong women. Baldwin’s daughter Maria became his unofficial private secretary, declaring confidently “Do you think I have lived all my life among politicians for nothing? No indeed! Politics are with me as though they were a second nature.” LaFontaine’s wife Adele worked on behalf of political prisoners during the 1837 Rebellions. Both men were haunted by circumstances in their personal lives: Baldwin became a widower at a young age and LaFontaine’s first marriage was childless. They both poured their energies into politics.

19th century Canadian history has a reputation for being calm and uneventful but John Ralston Saul provides a vivid account of the conflicts of times. As a child, Baldwin fled the burning of what is now Toronto by American troops during the war of 1812. The Rebellions of 1837 cost lives in both Upper and Lower Canada and a few of the rocks thrown at Governor General Lord Elgin at the time of the burning of parliament in Montreal in 1849 are still in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Ralston Saul also places events in Canada in a wider trans-Atlantic context, examining the impact of the European political upheavals of 1848 and the emigration following the Irish Potato Famine on Canadian politics and society. Highly recommended.

#201 of 365 Lester B Pearson by Andrew Cohen

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 23, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home, Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review:  I enjoyed this short biography of Lester B. Pearson, who was Prime Minister of Canada at the time of the centennial of Confederation in 1967. Cohen observes that in contrast to other famous Canadian Prime Ministers such as John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, Lester Pearson did not have a vision of himself as a “great man” destined to become Prime Minister but instead seized the career opportunities that came to him, reflecting, “I expected to spend at least the next quarter century teaching history…with forays into related activities. I knew that I would never become a cloistered scholar,but I did not know where one of these forays was to lead me.”

In addition to discussing Pearson’s life and accomplishments, the book also provides an overview of the development of Canadian nationhood over the course of the 20th century. Pearson had a sense of a Canadian identity distinct from Great Britain and the United States from a young age and his accomplishments as Prime Minister included the introduction of the current Canadian flag and the promotion of bilingualism. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Suez Crisis, the first example of Canada not joining Great Britain in war. I would have been interested to read more about Pearson’s views of the monarchy as there are references in the book to the “Royal” slowly disappearing from a number of Canadian institutions. A well written and interesting biography and work of Canadian history.

#202 of 365 Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont by Joseph Boyden

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 28, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review: A vivid dual biography of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel that centres around the North-West Rebellion of 1885 from the perspective of Dumont then the trial of Louis Riel. I have visited Duck Lake and Batoche in Saskatchewan and could picture the setting. While Boyden focuses closely on the experiences and worldview of these two Metis leaders, the book also discusses the wider impact of the Red River and North-West Rebellions on the development of Canada and the history of warfare. While Dumont comes to life on the pages of the book, the various facets of Riel’s character do not always come to the surface as Boyden focuses closely on his religious views and quotes extensively from his discussions on this subject. I was curious to know more about his early life, upbringing and time in exile between rebellions. A fascinating read.

#203 of 365 Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

Review:  A beautifully written literary biography that captures the eloquence and statesmanship of the Cree Chief Big Bear and the challenges faced by First Nations people in the late 19th century. Wiebe draws upon a variety of sources, including interviews by Big Bear’s descendants, to describe his efforts to reach a peaceful agreement with the Canadian authorities and provide for his people. The final chapters of the book are tragic. Big Bear and his family experienced starvation and poverty, and the Chief was blamed for attacks on settlers that he in fact attempted to prevent. Wiebe concludes that Big Bear still has a lasting impact on Canadian culture, stating, “His insistence on talking to resolve conflict would become the Canadian way. They had, after all, named the whole country Canada, which sounded very much like the Cree word kanata, meaning ‘the place that is clean.'” Well worth reading.

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