Books I’ve Read This Week: Biography and Memoir

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 46: Biography and Memoir: I have returned from lecturing on a cruise ship and I am catching up on my book reviews here! In addition to reading historical novels and histories of Southeast Asia in November, I read a variety of different biographies and memoirs. While a couple of these books are biographies of historical figures, the others are modern memoirs that examine a variety of themes including family history, First Nations experiences, growing up in apartheid South Africa, dealing with stress, and the division of household labour. Here are this week’s reviews:

#317 of 365 The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy

Genre: History/Biography

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 431 pages

Review: A joint biography of Irene, Cynthia and Alexandra Curzon, the three daughters of George Curzon, Viceroy of India, and an American heiress, Mary Leiter. de Courcy provides a vivid portrait of British upper class society in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, describing lavish dinner parties and debutante balls. The most interesting sections of the book are the accounts of King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 and marriage to Wallis Simpson in 1937 from the perspective of his social circle. Alexandra “Baba” Curzon was married to Edward’s best friend (and best man) Fruity Metcalfe and her diary provides a first hand account of the unconventional royal wedding.

There are other sections of the book, however, that become mired in the numerous scandals involving the Curzon sisters and their friends and with less attention devoted to the broader historical context. Irene was one of the first female Life Peers in the House of Lords, Cynthia was a Member of Parliament and Alexandra provided financial assistance to the Dalai Lama after his flight from China, and received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her philanthropy. I would have been interested to read more about these political and charitable endeavours. Irene’s and Alexandra’s lives after the Second World War are summarized in a few pages at the end of the book, even though Alexandra died in 1995 at the age of 91. An engaging read but I prefer some of Anne de Courcy’s other books including 1939: The Last Season and Debs at War.

#318 of 365 Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot 

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Review: My book club’s choice for November. An exquisitely written memoir. The author has experienced a great deal of personal suffering but there are moments of hope and humour that shine through her pain. Mailhot engages with the concepts of forgiveness and memory and how these ideas are shaped by culture. The influences of her own mother and grandmother and the experience of growing up on the Seabird Island Reservation in British Columbia infuse the narrative. The book includes an introduction by Sherman Alexie that describes the author as “the metaphorical love child of Emily Dickinson and Crazy Horse.” There is also an interview with the author that describes the process of writing the book from her original intent to write fiction to the uncovering of her life story. An original and absorbing read.

#319 of 365 It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs

Dates Read: November 16-17, 2018

Genre: Memoir/Comedy

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: An entertaining book about researching family history, the prospect of a global family tree and the author’s efforts to organize the world’s biggest family reunion. It’s All Relative is filled with entertaining anecdotes about the author’s own family tree, including a touching story about his grandparents’ courtship that Jacobs uncovers in his grandfather’s FBI file. He discovers famous people who are his 7th or 9th cousins and interviews them about their own views on family history research. (The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is actively disinterested in geneology while the actress Mila Kunis sends Jacobs a DNA profile that is so complete that he learns her earwax consistency). The family history project does not seem to have been quite as all consuming as his previous books, which involved reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, following the Bible literally or transforming his diet and exercise regime but it’s still a very enjoyable read.

#320 of 365 Frederik III: The King Who Seized Absolute Power by Jens Gunni Busck

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Hardcover, 60 pages

Review: An illustrated short biography of a little known monarch who had a profound effect on the government of Denmark for nearly two hundred years after this reign. Prior to the reign of Frederik III, a Council of the Realm imposed limits on the King of Denmark’s power, which the monarch was obliged to respect in order to ensure that his son would be accepted as the next King. After the Council was blamed for the mismanagement of a disasterous war with Sweden, Frederik III seized absolute power in 1660 and his Royal Laws remained in force until the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in 1848. While the politics of his reign are explained in detail, there is not as much space devoted to his personal life, aside from image captions that hint that his marriage was difficult one. A good short overview of Frederik’s reign but the book does not provide details concerning all aspects of his life.

#321 of 365 Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley

Genre: Memoir/Cultural Studies

Date Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 264 pages

Review:Fed Up is both a memoir of the author’s marriage and a wider cultural analysis of how society views emotional labour. Hartley writes with warmth and optimism about the frustrations caused by the activities that appear invisible but make individual homes and communities run smoothly such as planning meals, remembering birthday parties and organizing Christmas cards. In her own home, changing employment circumstances and better communication result in a more equitable division of household labour, giving Hartley the space required to complete her book manuscript. While much of the book is focused on the domestic sphere, there are also chapters that analyze perceptions of emotional labour in politics and the workplace. Hartley concludes that a more equitable division of emotional labour, in addition to setting boundaries around these activites and letting go of perfectionism, would benefit both men and women. An interesting and insightful read.

#322 of 365 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: November 21-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 44 minutes

Review: The best audiobook that I have listened to this year, brilliantly narrated by the author who is able to imitate a multiplicity of voices from all backgrounds. Noah is an excellent writer with an eye for memorable details and distinctive personalities. He provides a unique perspective on apartheid in South Africa as the child of a European father and an African mother whose relationship was illegal at the time of his birth. As he explains, he was literally “Born a Crime.” Noah writes about his religious, strict and resourceful mother with admiration and explains the complexity of the society where he grew up with a great deal of insight. Highly recommended.

#323 of 365 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris

Genre: Memoir

Date Listened: November 23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 50 minutes

Review:10% Happier appears to be a self help book but it is actually an interesting memoir about a news anchor who finds a lasting solution to his depression and panic attacks through mindfulness meditation. His reflections on his journalism career were interesting and insightful. He discusses the impact of war on the mental heath of war correspondents and the manner in which reporters competing for scarce air time view current events through the lens of their own careers. Harris discovers meditation through his press coverage of religion and spirituality and goes from skepticism about this practice to attending week long silent retreats. The audiobook is well read by the author.

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