Books I’ve Read This Week: Women in 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 36: Women in History and Literature: In recent weeks, I have been reading books about famous women. There is a strong focus on literature including books about Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s Wife), and the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays as well as a lesser known novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In addition to these books about women and literature, I also read a novel about Lady Jane Grey and a biography of Clementine Churchill. Here are this week’s reviews:

#246 of 365 Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell

Genre: History/Biography

Dates Listened: September 4-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 32 minutes

Review: An engaging biography of Clementine Churchill that might also have been titled “The Churchills at Home” or “The Churchills and the Roosevelts” as the author devotes the most attention to Clementine’s influence over her husband, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the couple’s often difficult relationship with their children and the Churchill family’s rapport with American President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Second World War. Clementine emerges as a strong personality in her own right who supported her husband’s political career while also challenging him in private and assuming an unprecedented public role of her own during wartime.

Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King praised Clementine’s accomplishments and thought that her achievements during the war deserved to be better known. However, the author’s use of the term “First Lady” to describe Clementine in the introduction to the book is sometimes distracting as the spouse of a Prime Minister in a constitutional monarchy has a different role than the spouse of a President in a republic. Otherwise, an insightful and interesting biography of a historical figure who should occupy a more prominent place in histories of Britain during the Second World War.

#247 of 365 Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer

Genre: Literary Criticism

Date Read: September 8-11, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Fanfare Books, Stratford, Ontario

Format: Hardcover, 312 pages

Review: A engaging study of how portrayals of women evolved in Shakespeare’s plays over the course of his career, informed by the author’s extensive experience performing, directing and teaching all the plays except Cymbeline. Although Packer has conducted a wide range of research concerning Shakespeare’s life and work, the narrative is very much a personal one, incorporating her feelings while performing the female roles and the decisions that she has made as a director. The book is strongest when it focuses closely on the plays. Packer’s speculation concerning what Shakespeare might have been thinking at any given time in his life is sometimes distracting as there is so much that is still unknown about his life experiences. A fascinating read, especially immediately after watching a Shakespeare performance.

#248 of 365 Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

Dates Listened: September 10-14, 2018

Genre: Biography/History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 10 minutes

Review: The popular image of American poet Emily Dickinson is of a reclusive figure who kept herself apart from the wider world. Lyndall Gordon, however, places Dickinson at the centre of a wide circle of friends and correspondents as well as a dysfunctional family who fought with each other for generations to control the poet’s legacy. The title is a reference to Dickinson’s grandmother Gunn, who was renowned for her fierce temper. The strong personalities and passions of Dickinson’s relatives come alive in the text as well as the momentum of the family conflicts that were passed from parent to child. In addition to documenting the conflicts within the poet’s family and wider circle, Gordon also discusses the possible reasons for Dickinson’s period of seclusion, presenting research that she may have suffered from epilepsy. An interesting biography of a literary family that reads like a 19th century novel.

#249 of 365 Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer

Genre: History/Literary Criticism

Date Read: September 11-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at the Stratford Festival

Format: Hardcover, 406 pages

Review: A fascinating biography of Anne Hathaway that places her and her daughters Susanna and Judith within the context of the social history of Stratford-upon-Avon. Greer’s conclusions are necessarily speculative because so little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life and his relationship with his family. Nevertheless, her analysis is a welcome counterpoint to longstanding assumptions that Shakespeare was pressured into his marriage and left town as soon as possible. In addition to examining how Anne Hathaway’s experiences compared with that her neighbours, Greer also examines portrayals of marriage in Shakespeare’s plays, especially The Merry Wives of Windsor. Like the author, I hope that new sources concerning Anne Hathaway will emerge, providing more details about the life she led in Stratford-upon-Avon.

#250 of 365 Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

Dates Read: September 14-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Fanfare Books, Stratford, Ontario

Genre: Literary Biography

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: A well researched and engaging biography of Charlotte Bronte with a strong focus on her emotions and inner life. Harman begins with Charlotte’s unrequited fascination with Constantin Heger (the inspiration for Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre) during her time studying and teaching at his school in Brussels, and the contrast between her placid exterior and strong emotions.

For Charlotte, her extended time in Brussels was a rare period away from her family. The isolation of the Haworth parsonage and the insular world created by the Bronte siblings is at the centre of the book. Charlotte, however, was the most sociable member of her family, forming outside friendships and studying abroad and she is therefore the Bronte sibling who left the greatest amount of source material about her thoughts and preoccupations.

In addition to examining Charlotte’s correspondence, novels and other writings, Harman includes the latest research concerning Bronte’s health including the likelihood that her death was caused by hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication suffered in recent years by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. A fascinating look at the inner turmoil experienced by the author of Jane Eyre.

#251 of 365 The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: September 20, 2018

Acquired: Free E-Book from Faded Page

Format: E-Book, 174 pages

Review: A beautiful and comparatively obscure novel by LM Montgomery who is best known for writing Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. The Blue Castle is the only one of Montgomery’s novels set entirely outside Prince Edward Island and the book is filled with evocative descriptions of Muskoka in all four seasons. While most of Montgomery’s heroines are children, at least at the beginning of their stories, Valancy Stirling is 29 at the start of The Blue Castle and feels that her life has little purpose. Montgomery provides a sensitive portrayal of her unhappiness at the beginning of the novel and how she finds gradually finds fufillment after receiving alarming news about her health.

Although there are serious themes addressed in the book including family estrangement, depression, alcoholism and the social stigma attached to unwed motherhood in the 1920s, the novel is also filled with moments of dry humour, especially when Valancy decides to stop trying to meet the expectations of her overbearing relatives and just be herself. A satisfying read with engaging characters.

#252 of 365 Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 14 minutes

Dates Listened: September 20-24, 2018

Review: A mediocre novel about a fascinating historical figure. Weir adopts multiple first person narration and the result is a sprawling narrative that sometimes loses sight of Lady Jane Grey to follow extended tagents concerning other characters such as Catherine Parr, Queen Mary I or the Duke of Northumberland. The narrators also adopt a similar narrative style, heavily foreshadowing historical events that would not have seemed inevitable to the people involved in them and describing their clothing and residences with the detached tone of an outside observer. Even four year old Lady Jane Grey describes “the clasp of the jewelled gidle, with its hanging pomander, at my waist.”

The novel also repeats some tired Tudor stereotypes. For example, Anne of Cleves is depicted as having strong body odour, Frances Grey subjects her children to corporal punishment at every opportunity in the novel and Lady Jane Grey is constantly surprised by events, even though she overhears numerous conversations about court intrigue over the course of the narrative and her parents openly scheme for their own advancement. There are distasteful scenes concerning Jane’s marriage to Guildford Dudley. Only in the final chapters is there real character development for the central figures in the novel. The audiobook is poorly organized by hour instead of by chapter.

Toronto Public Library Lecture on September 19, 2018: Royal Weddings from Victoria and Albert to Harry and Meghan

George Hayter’s painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

I will delivering a lecture at Toronto Public Library, Leaside Branch on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 at 2pm about the history of Royal Weddings from Victoria and Albert to Harry and Meghan followed by the sale and signing of my most recent book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. All are welcome.

Click here for more information

Books I’ve Read This Week: Nordic History and Culture

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 35: Nordic History and Culture: While traveling in northern Europe in August, I visited Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland and read numerous books about the society and culture of these Nordic nations. I also read a couple of history books about Finland and a Nobel Prize winning work of Icelandic literature. Here are this week’s reviews:

#239 of 365 The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by  Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 208 pages

Date Read: August 30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Review:  A relaxing read, especially in the Rosenborg Castle cafe on a rainy day in Copenhagen. The authors examine Danish culture and its effect on how children in Denmark grow up. The advice they provide is not just applicable to parents but to anyone seeking to live a less stressful life. They observe that Danes practice rational optimism, not necessarily ignoring difficult circumstances but finding a silver lining. The importance of spending plenty of time outside and keeping up social connections is also emphasized. I was interested to read about the role of Denmark’s royal family in the education system. Crown Princess Mary spearheaded an anti-bullying initiative that more than 90% of Danish teachers would recommend to other educators. A quick and interesting read.

#240 of 365 The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth 

Genre: Travel/Society and Culture

Date Read: August 30-31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Paperback, 406 pages

Review:  An entertaining read that passed the time on the train between Copenhagen and a visit to Hamlet’s Castle Kronborg in Helsingor. Michael Booth is a British journalist married to a Dane who has spent time living in Denmark and traveled to the other Nordic countries. He analyzes how these nations differ from one another in terms of their history and culture. I enjoyed how he explored the individual and collective histories of the region and speculates about how past political upheavals, little discussed today, continue to shape Nordic culture.

As a travelogue, the book is very funny as Booth struggles with visiting a Finnish sauna, joining a Danish choir and finding the right clothes for Norwegian National Day. The book becomes less enjoyable when the author’s personal biases prevent him from providing a balanced perspective on certain aspects of Nordic politics and culture. For example, Booth is strongly anti-monarchy and cannot conceive of why there is so much support for the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish monarchies. As a result, he focuses on the few republicans he meets rather than all the people who have more positive views of their royal family and could speak to their charity work or diplomatic role. There are other instances in the book when the author has real trouble looking beyond his own worldview. An entertaining book but it should be read alongside other perspectives about Northern Europe.

#241 of 365 An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland by Jonathan Clements

Genre: Travel/History

Date Read: August 31. 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Hardcover, 179 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki last week and greatly enjoyed learning more about Finnish history and culture. The author is a British travel writer married to a Finn who explains the various periods of Finnish history with insight and humour. The Swedish and Russian influences are especially well explained. The book also contains an extensive discussion of Finnish food and drink, (which the author does not consider to be very good), and various points of interest in Finnish cities. There is a useful further reading section and Finnish film suggestions at the end. There are maps but the inclusion of a few phrases of the language would have been useful. A very helpful book for travelers and other readers seeking an introduction to Finland’s history.

#242 of 365 The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

Genre: Advice

Date Read: August 31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Hardcover, 287 pages

Review: A relaxing read, especially for a cozy evening in Copenhagen. This witty and beautifully illustrated book explains the Danish concept of Hygge and provides suggestions for incorporating more quiet moments of happiness into everyday life. I enjoyed the descriptions of Danish traditions including the cakeman at children’s birthday parties and the search for the almond at Christmas dinner. A breezy read, best enjoyed indoors with a hot drink.

#243 of 365 No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917 by Tony Lurcock

Genre: History/Travel

Date Read: September 1-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Paperback, 258 pages

Review:  I am pleased that I bought this book in Helsinki last month and read it in Iceland because it provides a fascinating portrait of how Finland was perceived by 19th century travelers. Each chapter is devoted to the reminiscences of a single traveler and there are a few famous figures including Lord Dufferin, the future Governor General of Canada. Although Finland was a Grand Duchy ruled by Russian Czars during this time period, the British tourists excerpted in the book describe a society with many similarities to 21st century Finland including gender equality (Finnish women were the first European women to receive the vote), a strong education system, breathtaking scenery, a comparatively egalitarian society and a thriving sauna culture. I was fascinated by the chapters devoted to the Baltic front of the Crimean War as these naval engagements are little known outside the region. An interesting and informative book, filled with the observations of 19th century tourists!

#244 of 365 The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir

Date Read: September 2, 2018

Genre: Travel/Society

Acquired: Purchased from the Geysir Gift Shop in Iceland

Format: Hardcover, 142 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Geysir gift shop in Iceland for the bus trip back to Reykjavik. The Icelandic born author, who has lived in many places around the world and written a blog about Iceland’s financial crisis, includes many entertaining anecdotes about Icelandic society including “the shower police” at public swimming pools, buses not always arriving on time and everything happening at the last minute. I would have liked a little more historical context and comparisons with other Nordic countries but The Little Book of the Icelanders is a fun read and a good introduction to Icelandic society for travelers.

#245 of 365 Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Genre: Classic Literature

Date Read: September 3, 2018

Acquired: Eymundsson Books, Reykjavik

Format: Paperback, 512 pages

Review: A classic in Icelandic literature and perfect the flight back to Toronto on Icelandair. A stubborn sheep farmer is determined to maintain his independence and property at all costs, even if his goals lead to the breakdown of his family. The novel, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures the atmosphere of rural Iceland with its sheep farms and mountains. It was interesting to read how the First World War was perceived in Iceland. There seems to have been a feeling of being remote from wider European events until “the Blessed War” led to skyrocketing demand for Icelandic wool and mutton, bringing small farmers out of poverty. Aside from the references to the war and the Russian Revolution, there is a timelessness to the narrative and a clear atmosphere of centuries of Icelandic farmers struggling to survive in an often hostile climate. Well worth reading, especially for visitors to Iceland.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Cruise Ship Library

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 34: The Cruise Ship Library: I spent the last couple weeks of August lecturing on a Baltic Sea cruise. While I brought a few books with me, I made good use of the ship’s library and found a number of interesting titles there. Mostly historical fiction but also some royal history and society and culture. Here are this week’s reviews:

#232 of 365 Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

Dates Read: August 19-22, 2018

Genre: Business/Society

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Review: A thoughtful and nuanced examination of gender, work and caregiving and why work-life balance remains elusive. In addition to sharing her own experiences navigating work and family responsibilities, Slaughter provides suggestions concerning how careers and workplaces might be re-envisioned to take into account the full range of the human experience including parenting and caring for aging parents. She also observes how existing solutions such as flexible work policies on paper are inadequate as many do not feel comfortable using them. Slaughter focuses almost exclusively on the United States with a few comparisons with other countries and I would have been interested to read more about the global context for the issues discussed in the book. An interesting read, especially after reading The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partenen.

#233 of 365 Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: August 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 544 pages

Review:  While I enjoyed Alison Weir’s novels about King Henry VIII’s wives, I found her dramatization of the tumultuous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine disappointing. As Weir states in her afterword, her focus is on Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II. As a result, she leaves out some of the most interesting periods of Eleanor’s life including her participation in the Second Crusade and her efforts to raise a ransom to free her son King Richard I during the Third Crusade. Both Henry and Eleanor are presented as one dimensional figures governed by their physical passions to the exclusion of almost all other considerations, especially during the first half of the book. Weir repeats every rumour about Eleanor’s personal life to such an extent that the novel reads as though it was written by one of her detractors. The book improves during the scenes with Eleanor’s children and during the Queen’s time in captivity but there are far better novels about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, including the works of Sharon Kay Penman.

#234 of 365 My Husband and I: The Inside Story of 70 Years of the Royal Marriage by Ingrid Seward

Date Read: August 25, 2018

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Borrowed from Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 296 pages

Review: A good overview of major themes in the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh including their interests, parenting and social lives. For readers who have read other books about the royal family, however, there is little new material and a lot of repetition. The speculation concerning Prince Philip’s personal life has already been examined in detail in Gyles Brandreth’s book, Philip and Elizabeth. Prince Charles’s childhood difficulties received extensive attention in biographies of Charles by Jonathan Dimbleby and Sally Bedell Smith. The book also devotes more than one chapter to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, another topic that has been the subject of numerous other books. A well known narrative, published in honour of the Queen’s 70th wedding anniversary.

#235 of 365 Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Date Read: August 28-30, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 340 pages

Review: A beautifully written novel about the artist Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf and the origins of the Bloomsbury group. The novel is written as Vanessa’s diary and the letters and telegrams of her friends and family. Vanessa acknowledges Virginia’s genius but Virginia’s possessive attitude toward Vanessa causes them both a great deal of unhappiness and heartbreak. I liked how the changing culture of the times are woven into the story including post-impressionism and the prominence of the younger generation of European royalty after the death of Edward VII. Fascinating afterword by the author about the lives and careers of the characters after the end of the novel.

#236 of 365 The Angry Tide (Poldark: Book 7) by Winston Graham

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: August 25-26, 2018

Format: Paperback, 612 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Review:  One of my favourite books in the Poldark series. I have not yet watched Season 4 of Poldark on PBS so I did not know how events would unfold in the novel and enjoyed both the surprises and the heavily foreshadowed developments. It was good to see the return of Verity, one of my favourite characters from the early books to counsel Ross and Demelza as their marriage faces difficulties yet again. The relationship between Morwenna and Drake continues to be touching and tragic. In addition to the engaging characters, Graham captures the atmosphere and changing culture of the times. For example, there is a scene on a visit to London where Demelza tries the latest fashions and Ross mistakes the empire waist dresses of the early 1800s for petticoats as they are so different from heavier 18th century fashions. An enjoyable read. I look forward to finishing the series.

#237 of 365 The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from Cruise Ship Library

Date Read: August 26-27, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 468 pages

Review: As a novel, I prefer The Fortune Hunter to Daisy Goodwin’s other books because it focuses on a single event, Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s visiting Britain, rather than a years long time frame. As historical fiction, however, the novel is best described as inspired by true events but mostly a work of the author’s imagination. Some of the dramatic embellishments are more convincing than others. I enjoyed Charlotte Baird’s fascination with photography and the manner in which the royalty of the time period were coming to terms with photographs shaping their public image. The relationship between Bay Middleton and the Empress of Austria was unrealistic though and does not really match Elisabeth’s character. A fun read with a satisfying ending but some unbelievable scenes.

#238 of 365 Brooklyn by Colm Toibin 

Dates Read: September 3-5, 2018

Acquired: The book swap table on the cruise ship

Format: Paperback, 262 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Review: A peaceful, relaxing read, much like the film based on the novel. Eilis emigrates from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s and gradually builds a new for herself then must decide whether it would be possible to resume her old life after all the changes she has experienced. As in the film, I enjoyed all the small cultural differences between Ireland and the United States including customer service and how to spend a day at the beach. In contrast to the film, the novel ends quite abruptly and I thought that Eilis’s thoughts on her decision should have been expanded. Perhaps a chapter set six months or a year after the end of the novel would give a better sense of closure on the characters.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Book Pile

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 33: The Book Pile: In mid-August, I read books from a variety of genres including Canadian history, science fiction, autobiography, mythology, comedy and fun novels. There was no real theme beyond the fact that all these books captured my interest and most are by authors who I have read before. Here are this week’s reviews:

#225 of 365 A Short History of Canada: Seventh Edition by Desmond Morton

Genre: History

Date Read: August 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: AlthoughA Short History of Canada is over 400 pages long, it is a little too short, especially in the early chapters prior to Confederation in 1867. The book focuses primarily on political and economic developments with a small amount of social and cultural history, including some bleak depictions of pioneer life on the frozen frontier. The strongest chapters discuss how Canada’s economy changed over time as well as the different visions of Canada by successive Prime Ministers. There are a few mentions of royal tours but the impact of the constitutional monarchy and Canadian responses to this system of government receive little attention. The book would benefit from the inclusion of a bibliography and further reading suggestions considering how quickly major historical developments are summarized in the text. Well written and readable but too short, even for a short history, considering the breadth of the material.

#226 of 365 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Date Read: August 11, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: Having read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I was curious to read another novel with the premise that the protagonist lives the same life multiple times and has to decide whether to make dramatic changes to historic events. While Life After Life focuses on a single family with the ability relive their own lives, Harry August discovers a Cronus Club of people like himself who pass messages through the centuries. When the messages indicate that the end of the world is occurring sooner than expected, Harry August must take action and the story builds to a dramatic showdown with another time traveler like himself.

There are moments of dry humour in the book including how Harry laments in numerous lives that central heating takes a long time to become ubiquitous. His discovery of the Cronus Club through the newspaper classified ads is also an entertaining twist. Amidst the action, there are some interesting philosophical discussions about the effect that time travel for even a few seconds would have on the course of human history. A fun and interesting read.

#227 of 365 The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation by Charlotte Gray

Genre: History

Date Read: August 12, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 336 pages

Review: A absorbing book by one of my favourite authors of Canadian history.The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation is not just the story of a murder trial but a social history of Toronto during the First World War. Gray examines how the shooting of Bert Massey by his housemaid, Carrie Davies, was perceived in the Toronto newspapers and how responses to the trial reflected the values of the time. There is a lot of interesting analysis of women’s rapidly changing roles in society both among the elites and in domestic service. There is also extensive discussion of the justice system of the time and how the reputations of the accused and the deceased had the ability to shape the outcome of the trial. The book concludes with an examination of the source material and the reasons why the trial passed into obscurity.

#228 of 365 My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

Genre: Memoir

Date Read: August 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 268 pages

Review: I greatly enjoyed the beginning and end of this memoir. Lady Antonia Fraser is one of three generations of royal biographers, Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser and Flora Fraser. She begins her reminiscences with the observation “The study of History has always been an essential part of the enjoyment of life,” a sentiment that I share. The last chapter of the book is fascinating, detailing her travels while researching her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots including conflicts with the tour guides of Sterling Castle and noting how myths about historical figures become popular knowledge. In between, however, there are too many tangents about Fraser’s extended family and social circle and not enough about her development as a historian. I would have liked to read more about Fraser’s historical interests and less about high society during the 1940s.

#229 of 365 Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Genre: Fiction/Mythology

Dates Read: August 16-17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Icelandair 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours

Review:   “The Gods created and sun and moon and with them time.” Not just about Norse mythology but the experience of reading mythology and discovering that these stories are unlike any others. A British “thin child” with asthma is evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz in the Second World War and becomes fascinated by Norse myths about the battle between the Gods and the end of the world. The thin child enjoys reading books from beginning to end, including their introductions but she does not enjoy analysis of how the Norse myths relate to other creation stories as she wishes to keep them entirely separate from every other story she has ever heard.

The narrative goes back and forth between the myths and the thin child’s pursuit of knowledge as “she liked seeing, and learning, and naming things. Daisies. Days-eyes.” The Gods are all larger than life figures except for Loki, who shows wit and a distinct personality. The book ends with A.S. Byatt’s own views on reading mythology and how they informed the novel.

#230 of 365 When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Dates Read: August 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 323 pages

Review:  An entertaining essay collection. The best sections were about his travels and book tours, including how his taste in hotels changed until he became an “insufferable snob,” the quirks of his fellow airline passengers and cultural differences that he encounters as he visits different places around the world. There is London where everything is “painfully expensive,” Paris where tourists argue underneath his window and Tokyo where he encounters curious translations of everyday instructions. What to do “When you are engulfed in flames” comes from the Japanese hotel fire safety instructions. There are not quite enough vignettes about his parents and siblings compared to his other books and “the smoking section” about his efforts to quit goes on a bit too long but much of this book is hilarious.

#231 of 365 The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: August 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Review: The 5th installment in the 44 Scotland Street series. The characters continue to be charming and the Scottish setting engaging but the plot lines are starting to become repetitive. Bertie continues to rebel against his mother and have difficulties with Olive at school. Bruce continues to be overly concerned with his appearance and Angus is focused on the adventures of his dog, Cyril. I was surprised that Pat, a major character in the previous books only appeared briefly in this volume as a guest at Matthew’s wedding. I would have liked a few scenes about how everything was going at the art gallery while Matthew and Elspeth were on their honeymoon. A enjoyable read but I preferred some of the earlier books in the series.

Baltic Sea Cruise Travel Photos 2018: The Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden

In August, I gave a royal history lecture series on a Baltic sea cruise. The first stop was Stockholm, Sweden, where I visited the royal palace, the official residence of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia. Here are a few of my photographs from the trip:

Stockholm Palace Chapel

King Carl XVI Gustaf

Paintings by King Carl Gustaf XVI’s grandmother, Crown Princess Margareta (Princess Margaret of Connaught, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria)

In the Meleager Salon of Stockholm Palace. According to the palace guidebook, “The woven tapestries were part of the dowry of Ulrika Eleanora the Elder” Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark (not to be confused with her daughter, a queen regnant) was consort to King Charles XI of Sweden

The King Charles XI gallery

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia of Sweden

King Gustaf VI Adolf’s 1st wife, Princess Margaret of Connaught

Lady Louise Mountbatten, the 2nd wife of King Gustaf VI of Adolf of Sweden

The Bernadotte Rooms 

Queen Josefina of Sweden, consort of King Oscar I. Born Princess Josephine of Leuchtenberg, she was named for her grandmother, Empress Josephine (consort of Emperor Napoleon I).

Washington Post Interview: ‘The king and his husband’: The gay history of British royals

I discussed the history of royalty and same-sex relationships with Kayla Epstein at the Washington Post. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Ordinarily, the wedding of a junior member of the British royal family wouldn’t attract much global attention. But Lord Ivar Mountbatten’s has.

That’s because Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is expected to wed James Coyle this summer in what has been heralded as the “first-ever” same-sex marriage in Britain’s royal family.

Perhaps what makes it even more unusual is that Mountbatten’s ex-wife, Penny Mountbatten, said she will give her former husband away.

Who says the royals aren’t a modern family?

Though Mountbatten and Coyle’s ceremony is expected to be small, it’s much larger in significance.

“It’s seen as the extended royal family giving a stamp of approval, in a sense, to same-sex marriage,” said Carolyn Harris, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.“This marriage gives this wider perception of the royal family encouraging everyone to be accepted.””

Click here to read the full article, “The king and his husband’: The gay history of British royals” in the Washington Post.

Here in Canada, the article has also been featured in the National Post.

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.

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:

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.