Books I’ve Read This Week: February 12-18, 2018

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 7: The Olympics: I am told that the Winter Olympics are taking place right now. In past years, I have managed to watch events on TV, especially my favourite sport, The Opening Ceremonies. The Olympics have inspired a few of my royal history articles over the years. In 2012, the year Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter Zara Phillips won a silver medal with the British equestrian team, I wrote about the history of royal athletes at the Olympic Games. In 2014, I wrote about the history of Sochi and Czarist Russia. In 2018, however, I haven’t seen a single event. My book a day project is consuming all my free time, in the best possible way. This past week, I’ve read three royal history books, three novels (two classic and one modern) and a biography of Gordon Lightfoot. Here are this week’s reviews.

#43 of 365 History, Fiction, and The Tudors: Sex, Politics, Power, and Artistic License in the Showtime Television Series, edited by William Robison

Genre: Royal History/Popular Culture

Date Read: February 11-12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 384 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  A collection of twenty-one essays by historians who separate fact from fiction in the Showtime series The Tudors, theme by theme and character by character. The book highlights what the series does well (portrayals of violence and sport in the reign of Henry VIII) and the show’s weaknesses (most notably the character of Henry VIII himself). The essays are written in an accessible and often witty style, with one historian observing, “At its worst, Rhys Meyers’ Henry resembles a young and ambitious middle manager of an Internet sales company, who shouts, shakes his fists, and stamps as he drives his cowed team on to exceed their monthly targets so that he can get a bigger bonus” and another comparing the onscreen portrayal of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

In addition to identifying historical inaccuracies and critiquing how historical figures are dramatized, History, Fiction, and The Tudors includes fascinating discussion about the relationship between history and popular culture and how the series introduces general audiences to Tudor history. My only criticism is the amount of plot summary in the individual chapters. Readers of this book will have seen the series already. The most blatant historical inaccuracies in the series, such as how The Tudors combines Henry VIII’s two sisters into one fictional character, are repeated a number of times. History, Fiction, and The Tudors is a must-read for anyone who has seen The Tudors and is interested in learning more about the history that inspired the TV series.

#44 of 365 At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: February 12-13, 2018

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Review:  I enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s previous novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn and was therefore excited to read her interpretation of westward migration in the United States. The descriptions of gardens and orchards were beautiful and the scenes where apple trees are lovingly grafted and grown from seedlings are richly compelling. I also liked the subtle inclusion of historical figures in the narrative, such as the real Johnny Appleseed, and the dramatization of how rare plants from the Americas traveled across the Atlantic to become part of English country estates and botanical gardens. There were a lot of unpleasant characters, however, and there were some plot developments that seemed unnecessarily harsh for the few likable figures. 

#45 of 365 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 49 minutes

Dates Listened: January 31-February 15, 2018

Review: Mansfield Park is one of two Jane Austen novels that I had not read before this year. The other is Northanger Abbey, which I hope to read next month. There are some great scenes of social satire and Fanny Price is an unexpectedly complex heroine. She is frail, shy, and treated as a poor relation by Lord and Lady Bertram but she rejects Henry Crawford’s proposal because of his character, stands up to the Bertrams when they pressure her to accept the match and takes charge of her younger sister’s education during a visit home. Mansfield Park is not my favourite Jane Austen novel, however, as it is an overly long book with a meandering plot. There are digressions about Shakespeare’s role in English culture and the proper way to read aloud, which are interesting in themselves but delay the conclusion of the novel, which seems unnecessarily rushed compared to the rest of the book. The audiobook is well read by Juliet Stevenson.

#46 of 365 Imperial Crimea: Estates, Enchantment and The Last of the Romanovs by Coryne Hall, Greg King, Penny Wilson, and Sue Woolmans

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Paperback, 778 pages

Dates Read: February 13-February 16, 2018

Review: I greatly enjoyed this book of articles about the last Romanovs and their Crimean Palaces. Imperial Crimea discusses both the architecture of the Romanov palaces in the Crimea and the lives of the Emperors and Empresses, Grand Dukes and Grand Duchesses who lived in them. Most of the articles examine an individual palace but there are multiple chapters devoted to the Imperial estate of Livadia and its development during the reigns of Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Livadia palace continued to be a site of political significance after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, becoming the setting of the Yalta Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in 1945.

Imperial Crimea also contains chapters concerning the history of the Crimea, the career of the architect Nikolai Krasnov and a fascinating profile of the Emir of Bukhara (now Uzbekistan) who was a frequent visitor to Livadia. The Emir is usually summarized in a single line within biographies of Czar Nicholas II as a visitor to the Livadia palace who brought the children extravagant presents but Greg King discusses the Emir’s love of poetry and complicated political position. The evacuation of Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Dowager Empress Marie and other members of the Romanov extended family from the Crimea in 1919 receives extensive analysis in the final chapters.

Imperial Crimea would have been enhanced by the inclusion of supplementary material such as maps, family trees, photographs and palace floor plans. There are also a few tired stereotypes included about the upbringing of the five children of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. Grand Duchess Marie is described as “lazy” and uninterested in her studies, when the recent publication of her diaries and letters demonstrate that she was in fact a hard working and conscientious student.  All four of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are described in Imperial Crimea as being “raised in isolation” but the whirlwind of balls, luncheons, excursions and charity bazaars described in the book suggest that they enjoyed a more varied social life than previously supposed, especially during their Crimean holidays.

I highly recommend Imperial Crimea to anyone interested in the Romanovs, nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, and the history of Russia.

#47 of 365 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 44 minutes

Dates Listened: February 15-16, 2018

Review: The character of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman in early twentieth century Florida, and her search for a marriage that resembles a bee and pear blossom is very compelling and I found this novel difficult to put down. Zora Neale Hurston’s central characters are complicated figures and each of Janie’s three husbands is flawed in his own way. The writing is lush and descriptive, especially the scenes in the aftermath of the hurricane where the houses do not have roofs and remains are impossible to identify. A spectacular performance by Ruby Dee on the audiobook. Highly recommended.

#48 of 365 Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 117 pages

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Review: I disagree with the first sentence of this book: “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory.” That distinction belongs to King John who not only had his powers limited by Magna Carta but went down in history as a sniveling villain. Even Charles I’s detractors acknowledged his personal virtues including his devotion to his family, and that he met his end with courage and dignity. Despite this questionable beginning, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life is nevertheless a good introduction to the major issues of Charles’s reign including religion, foreign policy and parliament, ending with a summary of the English Civil Wars and the King’s trial and execution. Kishlansky provides a balanced analysis of Charles I’s character, discussing both his better qualities and his political shortcomings. I would have liked more information to have been included in the book about Charles I’s famous art collection.

#49 of 365 Lightfoot by Nicholas Jennings

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: February 18, 2018

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Review: I am a huge fan of Gordon Lightfoot’s music and I enjoyed reading the stories behind the songs. I appreciated how Jennings not only wrote about the big hits such as “If You Could Read my Mind” and “Sundown” but also examined the more obscure classics such as “Marie Christine” or “Sixteen Miles to Seven Lakes,” and unreleased tunes as well. The history of the Toronto music scene in the 1950s and 1960s was also very engaging. Nice to know that Queen Elizabeth II also enjoys Lightfoot’s music and praised “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

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