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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Books I’ve Read This Week: Travel 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 28: Travel Literature: My summer reading this year includes travel literature (reviewed below), the Extraordinary Canadians biography series (to be reviewed in the next few days) and history books about Queens and Empresses (to be reviewed next week). I have taken an expansive definition of “Travel Literature” to include a book about what it would like to live in Tudor times, a richly descriptive novel about cooking in different countries and an unsettling novel set in rural Yorkshire. Otherwise, I read books about road trips, long hikes, passports and train journeys, some from the 1980s and some more recent. Here are this week’s reviews:

#190 of 365 Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 14-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 55 minutes

Review: A travelogue with some interesting chapters and compelling descriptions but not the humour of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, which has a similar premise. William Least Heat-Moon drove around the United States, avoiding the interstate highways to visit remote small towns such as “Nameless” and “Frenchman’s Station” and interesting characters including the residents of a trappist monastery in Georgia who vote on books to be read aloud at mealtimes. They had just finished Nicholas and Alexandra when the author visited them.
The book was written in 1982 but some of the concerns expressed by inhabitants of rural America, such as declining job prospects remain topical today. The author was going through a difficult period in his life when he wrote the book and both the author and the audiobook narrator have a crotchety tone that sometimes suits the material but eventually becomes repetitive. An interesting but overly long work of travel literature.

#191 of 365 How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman

Genre: Social History

Date Read: July 18, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Review:A fascinating study of daily life in Tudor times. While modern popular culture focuses on life at the court of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, Ruth Goodman reconstructs a day in the life for people from a variety of social classes from waking up at four in the morning to milk the cows to sleeping on your right side for health reasons at night. She examines Tudor fashions for all occasions (from ploughing the fields to searching for the northwest passage), the daily chores required to run a Tudor farm or shop, and the variety of leisure pursuits from archery to dancing. What makes the book stand out is the author has tried a variety of Tudor pursuits herself including cheesemaking, sleeping on floor rushes and dancing the volta. She even bravely tried the various levels of Tudor personal hygiene and describes the results in the book. An informative and entertaining read.

#192 of 365 AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 34 minutes

Review: I was expecting a memoir in the tradition of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson or Wild by Cheryl Strayed but AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is more of a travel log, listing distances and foot injuries in repetitive detail. The author is more interested in the various aspects of thru-hiker culture including shelters, nicknames, hitchhiking into town and finding food rather than the landscapes and histories of the different regions of the trail. There is little humour, even in the conversations with interesting characters the author met along the trail. The book provides a good overview of the hiking experience for anyone interested in hiking the Appalachain Trail from end to end but does not provide enough context for general readers looking for a sense of the landscape. The audiobook is read in a cheerless monotone.

#193 of 365 Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Genre: Fiction

Date Listened: July 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 37 minutes

Review: A beautifully written and deeply unsettling novel about a family living at the margins of society in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Elmet is named for the last Celtic kingdom in England and the central characters live outside modern society until its realities intrude on their isolated existence. Mozley evokes the setting of a Yorkshire thicket where “For a blissful year,there had been a home” as a place of great natural beauty but also an isolated part of the world where terrible things can happen far beyond the reach of the rule of law. The plot is not as compelling as the setting and characters and there are loose ends remaining at the end of the story but the novel was absorbing throughout.

#194 of 365 The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document by Martin Lloyd

Genre: History

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 282 pages

Review: The Passport is filled with interesting facts about the history of travel. Lloyd notes that the Old Testament figure Nehemiah, the Governor of Persian Judea, required travel documents in c. 450 BCE to journey between regions that are now part of Israel and Iraq. France developed an internal passport system that was formalized at the time of the French Revolution while British passports were viewed as courtesy rather than a necessity until the First World War.

Unfortunately, the wealth of knowledge does not come together into a cohesive narrative as facts related to one another, such as League of Nations passports for refugees and the United Nations documents that replaced them, are discussed in completely different sections of the book. As the subtitle suggests, there are only passing references to the unique experiences of women travelers over the centuries. Lloyd mentions that married women were listed on the passports of their husbands in the early 20th century but does not analyse the implications of this practice for women’s mobility or when passports for individual women became widespread.

The book includes illustrations, comparing passports throughout history and around the world. There is even an example of a distinctive royal passport. The content of the book includes many interesting facts that should be better organized and analyzed for readers. The book would also benefit from a stronger conclusion than “I rather like passports.”

#195 of 365 The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Novel by Richard C. Morais 

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: July 23-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 245 pages

Review: A novel that is not quite as good as the film it inspired. Morais provides delicious descriptions of gourmet cuisine and allows readers to picture obscure ingredients such as the Kohlrabi “a bridge between the cabbage and the turnip.” The characters are not as likable in the novel as they are in the film, however, and the novel unfolds over too long a period of time to keep the story-line cohesive from beginning to end. Madame Mallory is suitably imperious when portrayed by Helen Mirren but comes across as just petty and unpleasant in the novel and her mentorship of Hassan appears to be an abrupt change in character. The film also emphasizes that Hassan creates fusion Indian/French cuisine as a restaurateur, while his distinct approach to cooking receives less attention in the novel. I recommend the film over the book.

#196 of 365 The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 353 pages

Review: I have read a number of travelogues written by Americans in Britain and I had high expectations of this one as Theroux is a prolific travel writer. From the beginning, I was disappointed by Theroux’s approach to exploring the United Kingdom. Despite stating that he lived in London for ten years without exploring much of the rest of the country, he decides from the beginning of his travels around the coast, “No sightseeing; no cathedrals, no castles, no churches, no museums. I wanted to examine the particularities of the present.” History is essential to understanding the present and the deliberate exclusion of historic buildings and exhibitions from his travels seems literally shortsighted.

The tone of the book was also disappointing. A travelogue of this kind benefits from an author with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a certain degree of humility in unfamiliar situations. Instead, Theroux takes himself fairly seriously but is relentless critical of “working class” people and “people on the dole” on their holidays and “the lower middle class” proprietors of bed and breakfasts who are not interested in his complaints. He eviscerates “caravan” holidays in Wales as though he has never seen a mobile home in the United States.

The book was written in 1983 and provides a good snapshot of how the big events of 1982, including the Falklands War and the birth of Prince William, were received by the British public. There are some very well written passages and reflections about the nature of travel and changing landscapes. Overall, however, the book would have benefited from more humour and willingness to go sightseeing!

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution

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 27: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution July 17, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family and four members of their household by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg. The centenary of this tragic event has prompted the publication of new books and articles concerning the Romanovs and their legacy.

The two most recent non-fiction works about the Imperial family, To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport examine whether an escape from Russia was possible after Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. Hall discusses the difficulties faced by the whole extended Romanov family while Rappaport focuses closely on Nicholas, Alexandra and their children and the political and logistical difficulties that prevented them from leaving Russia.

A recently published historical novel, The Romanov Empress, focuses on Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the most senior member of the Imperial family to survive the revolution and find refuge in Europe. In the past week, I also read two history books about royal families who faced political upheaval in past centuries as well as a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Japanese annexation of Korea and a history of the Baltic States. Here are this week’s reviews:

#183 of 365 To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

Genre: History

Date Read: July 9-July 12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 306 pages

Acquired: Received a review copy from Amberley Publishing

Review: A fascinating history of what Europe’s royal families did and did not do to help Czar Nicholas II and his extended family after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Most books that examine negotiations concerning a possible rescue of the Romanovs focus narrowly on King George V and the British government. In addition to George V, Hall discusses a diverse array of European monarchs including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who showed a strong interest in the welfare of the Russian Imperial family, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose assistance was rebuffed by his Russian relatives because of the First World War, and King Christian X of Denmark, whose diplomats provided some aid to imprisoned Grand Dukes in 1919. Hall draws upon British and European archival sources as well as the unpublished diaries of Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, who became increasingly outraged by George V’s failure to do more to help Nicholas II.

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I thought the ending could have been stronger, emphasizing all the reasons why there were not more efforts to help the Romanovs, such as the First World War and the poor communications of the time. The book is filled with references to undelivered letters and unsent telegrams that undermined efforts to locate the Romanovs once they were sent to Siberia, let alone develop a viable rescue plan.  Instead, To Free the Romanovs, ends with the loose threads in the negotiations between Russia and various European powers concerning the Romanovs just before the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his immediate family, and the hope that that further information will come to light.

#184 of 365 The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 372 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Date Read: July 13, 2018

Review: A thoroughly researched study of the obstacles to rescuing Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children in 1917 and 1918. Rappaport argues that there was a very narrow window of opportunity for the Imperial family to escape because of the internal political situation within Russia. She includes her own notes on her research process and how she built upon the work of previous authors who have examined the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the Romanovs by Europe’s monarchs.

I found Rappaport’s analysis of the influence of Empress Alexandra’s reputation on attitudes toward rescuing the Romanovs both within Russia and across Europe especially interesting. By 1917, Alexandra had alienated many of her own relatives as well as popular opinion in both the United Kingdom and Russia, and negative attitudes concerning her influence over Nicholas undermined interest her welfare and that of her family.

The book concludes with the former Imperial family’s own views of potential rescue plans. Their reluctance to be separated from one another and to leave Russia means that they would not have supported many of the plans discussed in the book. An engaging and absorbing read, even though the ending is sadly well known.

#185 of 365 The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C. W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: July 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 427 pages

Review: An excellent historical novel from the perspective of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Czar Nicholas II, and sister of King George I of Greece and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom. C. W. Gortner brings Maria, nicknamed Minnie, and her colourful family to life. The scenes with Minnie’s sister-in-law and “friendly rival” Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, nicknamed Miechen, were especially entertaining. Gortner provides a nuanced portrayal of Minnie’s marriage to Czar Alexander III, which was successful in many ways but not without its challenges, and shows her frustrations at becoming increasingly marginalized from major decisions during her son’s reign. I would have liked more scenes set outside of Russia as Minnie was prodigious traveler who spent much of Nicholas II’s reign visiting relatives in England, Denmark and Greece. There were therefore opportunities to show more of Europe’s royal courts in the years leading up to WWI. Otherwise, an enjoyable novel inspired by a historical figure who lived through key events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

#186 of 365 Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone

Genre: History

Date Read: July 15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: An absorbing four generation family saga beginning with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and ending with the accession of George I in 1714. Goldstone describes the reign of James I, the eventful life of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and the adventures of her thirteen children, including four gifted daughters. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, actively campaigned for her family to be acknowledged as the senior line in the British succession and her son George I became the first monarch from the House of Hanover.

Goldstone draws interesting parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Sophia of Hanover in their tireless promotion of their family’s interests. In addition to their political significance, Elizabeth’s daughters were part of the intellectual life of the seventeenth century. Princess Elizabeth, corresponded with Descartes, Louise Hollandine was an accomplished portrait artist and Sophia and her daughter supported the work of Leibniz. I would have been interested to have read more about these intellectual currents. For example, there are passing references to prestigious University of Heidelberg without mention of the nature of the scholarship taking place there at the time. Daughters of the Winter Queen is otherwise a fascinating joint biography about an important branch of the royal family who became the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.

#187 of 365 Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 331 pages

Review: A careful and detailed analysis of lives and deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg Empire and Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Greg King and Penny Wilson examine the myths surrounding the events at Mayerling and the efforts of Emperor Franz Joseph to prevent any further investigation of his son’s death. They present a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened the night that Rudolf and Mary died. King and Wilson also describe the cultural atmosphere of late 19th century Vienna, a city that had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and discuss the tensions within Rudolf’s dysfunctional extended family. They provide an especially sensitive portrayal of Rudolf’s estranged wife, Crown Princess Stephanie, who suspected that Rudolf planned to harm himself and attempted to warn other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The book concludes with an epilogue that discusses the colourful life of Rudolf and Stephanie’s only child, Archduchess Elizabeth and the convent founded on the site of Mayerling where daily prayers are still offered for Rudolf’s soul.

#188 of 365 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 11-July 14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 16 minutes

Review: The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought the reign of the last Korean Emperor, Sunjong, to an end. Pachinko is set in the aftermath of this political upheaval, following four generations of a Korean family who face discrimination and changing fortunes in Japan. The first two thirds of the novel are especially good as the political and economic circumstances of Japan and Korea, especially the Depression and Second World War, inform the conditions faced by the central characters. The atmosphere at the boarding house in Korea and in the Korean district of Osaka, Japan, as well as the pervasive obstacles faced by the characters as Koreans in Japan are presented in a compelling fashion.

The narrative begins to the lose momentum once Noa discovers some hidden truths about his family’s history. During the later chapters, there are too many jumps in the chronology and too many digressions concerning minor characters and their love lives. The novel is at its best when its focused on the central characters and their challenges within the wider context of Korean and Japanese history.

#189 of 365 A History of the Baltic States by Andres Kasekamp

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 251 pages

Review: A good overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from prehistoric times to the present. More than half of the book is devoted to the 20th century but the major events and historical figures from earlier centuries are also discussed in some detail. I found the analysis of the influence of Baltic Germans on Imperial Russian history especially interesting. Kasekamp notes that “From Peter the Great until the demise of the monarchy in 1917, an astonishingly high proportion (one-eighth) of individuals who served in the top echelons of the Imperial administration were of Baltic German origin” with Baltic influence especially pronounced during the reigns of Peter the Great’s consort and successor Catherine I (who was raised in what is now Latvia) and his niece, Anna. The book includes detailed maps, a chronology of events, and an extensive further reading section organized by time period and theme.

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