Books I’ve Read This Week: Britain and France

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 42: Britain and France: In recent weeks, I have read novels, histories and travelogues set in Britain and/or France including a classic novel, two very different mystery novels, a book about British perceptions about France, a history of the opening weeks of the First World War, the story of a British matchmaking bureau during the Second World War, a joint biography of five influential women who presided over a famous English country house, and a history of Napoleon’s last years on the Island of St. Helena and his friendship with an English family residing there. Here are this week’s reviews:

#287 of 365 Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: October 4-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 14 minutes

Review: A classic novel where literary characters make poor life choices while drinking champagne and discussing philosophy! An excellent performance by Juliet Stevenson on the audiobook and some lush descriptions by Gustave Flaubert but I found the characters and plot were not to my taste. The tragedy that unfolds seems as though it could have been so easily avoided. The best passages are those that evoke the atmosphere of the times including Emma’s absense of meaningful occupation as a country doctor’s wife and the references to the impact of Rousseau’s work on 19th century French childrearing. The characters, however, were all unlikable and the narrative is narrowly focused on them to the exclusion of different perspectives that would present alternate possible outcomes for the story. A classic that I did not especially enjoy.

#288 of 365 They Eat Horses, Don’t They?: The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell

Dates Read: October 6-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Genre: Travel/Society

Review:  A book about British perceptions of France and a few French perceptions of Britain that examines each stereotype to see if there is any truth behind it. The book is filled with interesting facts about how France compares to the rest of Europe. For example, the highest per capita consumption of wine and cheese is not in France but in Vatican City and Greece respectively. The structure of the book, however, limits its scope as it only examines those aspects of French culture that are known from popular British stereotypes. I expected a more comprehensive analysis of French society. A fun read but there are other entertaining books about France by expats that cover more ground including 60 Million Frenchman Can’t Be Wrong by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau.

#289 of 365 The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Genre: Social History

Date Read: October 19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 359 pages

Review:  A light and breezy history of a 1940s matchmaking agency and the variety of clients that came through the door. While there is some discussion of the impact of the Second World War, the declining British Empire and postwar austerity on the marital decisions made at the time, the focus of the book is on individual anecdotes and the process of setting up and expanding a matchmaking business. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 led to an increase in inquiries at the marriage bureau as the celebrations prompted others to want to get married. The most entertaining part of the book is the Appendix, which lists the requirements for the ideal spouse provided by British men and women in the 1940s. The requests varied from being open to meeting “Any reasonable young woman” to very specific criteria such as “South Welsh (not North Welsh)” and “Nobody called Florence.” A fun read but the book could have included more social history of the times.

#290 of 365 A Study in Scarlet Women: The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 1 by Sherry Thomas

Genre: Historical Mystery

Dates Listened: October 23-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours

Review: The first volume of the adventures of Charlotte Holmes, who claims to be the sister of her alter ego Sherlock Holmes. The central character is interesting as she has strong analytical mind and little use for the social conventions of her time, which are especially restrictive for women. The novel is filled with critiques of Victorian gender roles and larger philisophical debates about the role of women in society that remain relevant in the 21st century. 
While Charlotte Holmes and her times are interesting, the story is sometimes difficult to follow, especially when multiple perspectives and plot twists are presented by a single narrator in the audiobook format. I did not agree with Charlotte’s reasoning at the beginning or end of the book and I think that she could have found other ways to achieve her independence, even in the 19th century. An interesting novel but it is probably better read on the page than experienced as an audiobook.

#291 of 365 Maisie Dobbs by Jacquline Winspear

Genre: Historical Mystery

Dates Listened: October 26-27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 1 minute

Review: I greatly enjoyed this mysery novel and look forward to reading more books in the series. Maisie Dobbs begins her career as a housemaid provided with an education by her employers. After attending Girton College, Cambridge and serving as a nurse during the First World War, she becomes a detective who draws upon psychology and philosophy to solve her cases. The author does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of Britain during the First World War and its aftermath including the possibilities for social change and the suffering of those who were disfigured or had lost loved ones. Maisie is an engaging heroine with a thoughtful approach to investigating her cases that is reminiscent of the detectives in Alexander McCall Smith novels. The setting and themes are engaging for fans of Downton Abbey. Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction and mysteries.

#292 of 365 The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone

Genre: History/Biography

Dates Read: October 24-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 512 pages

Review: A fascinating joint biography of five influential women who made their home at Cliveden House: Anna Maria Talbot, mistress of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham; Elizabeth Villiers, mistress of King William III; the politically astute Augusta, Princess of Wales, mother of King George III; the abolitionist Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland; and the first female MP to take her seat in the United Kingdom, Nancy Astor. Livingstone discusses the contributions that each of these historical figures made to the development of Cliveden House and to the politics and society of their times.
The degree of financial independence enjoyed by elite women in Britain varied from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and the book explores the choices available to each of the women who presided over Cliveden. There is also some fascinating history of the house itself. The Cliveden estate was the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital during the First World War and served as a Canadian Red Cross Hospital again during the Second World War. The author currently runs Cliveden as a hotel and the book is informed by her extensive research and experience of spending time on the estate. An enjoyable and informative read.

#293 of 365 The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Genre: History

Dates Listened: October 16-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 10 minutes

Review: A Pulitzer prize winning popular history classic that continues to shape histories of the First World War. Tuchman focuses closely on the events of the first month of the war, demonstrating why the various countries involved were determined to fight until the bitter end. The description of the German burning of the university library in Louvain, Belgium and the horrified public response to the destruction of so many historic manuscripts is especially compelling. Tuchman has a talent for proviving a vivid description of a historical figure in a single phrase, allowing the reader to distinguish a vast array of military and political figures across Europe. New documents have come to light since publication, especially concerning the eastern front, but the book still provides an excellent overview of the early weeks of the war. The audiobook is well read but I would have preferred to have read the physical book with maps of the western and eastern fronts.

#294 of 365 The Emperor’s Shadow: Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes of St Helena by Anna Whitehead

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 452 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Review:The Emperor’s Shadow is three books in one: the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s last years on the island of St. Helena, a biography of his friend and neighbour Betsy Balcombe, and a travelogue of the author following in the footsteps of the Balcombes. Betsy is an engaging figure who resembles Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice with her high spirits, irreverence, and hasty marriage to a fortune hunting military officer in scandalous circumstances. There are times when Betsy’s own experiences and impressions become overwhelmed by the wider narrative of historical events described in the book from the fall of Napoleon I to the rise of Napoleon III (who visted Betsy to hear her impressions of his famous uncle). The Emperor’s Shadow is always engaging, however, and demonstrates how members of Napoleon’s social circle became celebrities in their own right.

2 thoughts on “Books I’ve Read This Week: Britain and France

  1. Ok, I am simply impressed! And I have one burning question: HOW? How do you read 7 books per week? And not only children books and short exhibition catalogues (although you have some of those as well), but also big ones which takes probably around 10-15 hours to read from cover to cover.

    • Thanks for reading, Cathleen! Here on the website, I organize the books by theme to create more cohesive blog posts whereas on goodreads and twitter, I post about the books in the exact order that I read them. I try to balance shorter and longer books. A week of short exhibition catalogues provides the opportunity to get started on longer books that I can finish a few days later. Audiobooks are also key to the process as I can listen to audiobooks while doing household chores or other activities. The fact that there are a lot of books on similar themes also speeds up the process. Over the course of the year, I have read a lot of books about Queen Victoria, for example, and the basic biographical details of her life are repeated in most these books. My focus is on how books on the same theme differ from one another and I can therefore read the sections that are similar to one another more quickly. Of course, the fact that I’m drawn to larger books means that the Book a Day project is running a little behind schedule.I need to catch up a week in the next couple of months so there will probably be another week of museum guidebooks or illustrated histories in the near future!

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