Books I’ve Read This Week February 19-25, 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 8: The First Two Months: I’m two months into my Book a Day 2018 project and it’s definitely the longest I have ever stuck with a New Year’s Resolution. The daily routine of reading and writing book reviews is comforting during difficult times and I’m enjoying a nice blend of royal history, general history, classic fiction, modern novels, and philosophy. This week, I read fewer royal history books than usual but chose titles on a variety of different topics from classical Rome to comedy. Here are this week’s reviews:

#50 of 365 Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann

Genre: History

Acquired: Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 384 pages

Date Read; February 19, 2018

Review:Black Tudors: The Untold Story  focuses on ten people of African descent who lived in Tudor and Stuart England, providing a social history of sixteenth and seventeenth England as a cosmopolitan, maritime kingdom where people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds lived alongside one another, especially in seaside towns. The most detailed chapters concern Diego, who escaped slavery in Spanish America by talking his way aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship and the curiously named Reasonable Blackman who became a silk weaver and sadly lost two of his three children in a plague epidemic. Henry VIII’s trumpeter John Blanke is also the focus of a chapter, which demonstrates his rise to prominence at the royal court with the King purchasing his wedding clothes.

The lives of individual people of African descent in England serve as a lens for examining the broader context in which African migration to England took place during this time and Kaufmann reminds readers that all of the historical figures discussed in the book received wages for their labour and that the presence of Africans in England at this time cannot be explained by the overseas slave trade. Black Tudors: The Untold Story  is a fascinating read, which reveals the full complexity of of English society during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

#51 of 365 The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

Format: Paperback, 416 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: February 20, 2018

Review:  The Secret Wife by Gill Paul is a historical novel that imagines that Czar Nicholas II’s second daughter Grand Duchess Tatiana (murdered by Bolsheviks with her family in 1918) and her admirer Dmitri Malama (killed fighting in the White Army in 1919, during the Russian Civil Wars) survived and found each other. I have read a great deal of Romanov survival fiction from the excellent (The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander) to the terrible (The Czarina’s Daughter by Carolly Erickson) and I was interested to find out how this novel would portray Russia’s last Imperial family.

The Secret Wife begins well with a touching depiction of Tatiana and Malama meeting in the palace infirmary where the Grand Duchesses worked as nurses during the First World War. These early chapters are well researched and pleasant to read. Unfortunately, I found it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief once the Russian Revolutions of 1917 take place and Malama becomes involved in increasingly unrealistic rescue plans. I also did not enjoy the parallel, modern day narrative about Malama’s great-granddaughter Kitty renovating her cabin and dealing with her marital issues, which was far less compelling than the historical fiction.

Tatiana’s alternate life in the novel, which is not revealed until close to the end, is very sad. I did not understand the purpose of changing Tatiana’s historical fate only to provide her with a tragic fictional life. This novel had promise but I was disappointed by the end.

#52 of 365 Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Genre: History/Philosophy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 58 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: February 17-February 21, 2018

Review: Wanderlust is subtitled “A History of Walking” but it is best described as a philosophy of different modes of walking, in urban and rural areas, informed by history and the author’s own experiences. Solnit draws some interesting parallels between historical and modern modes of walking, for example, comparing pilgrimages and modern charity marathons. The different experiences of urban and rural walkers also receive extensive attention. Solnit examines why walking is often associated with authors and philosophers and how the early 19th century romantic movement transformed popular attitudes toward nature.

There is a strong focus on the United States, Britain and France with some discussion of mountaineering and hiking other parts of the world including Mount Everest and The Great Wall of China. I would have been interested to read more about how walking is conceptualized in other regions of the globe. Also, the narrative is sometimes rambling (in every sense of the word) and some of the chapters and examples are overly long and digress away from the subject of walking. An interesting read filled with insightful observations about what it means to walk in landscapes increasingly dominated by automobiles.

#53 of 365 SPQR: A History of Rome by Mary Beard

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 608 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Date Read: February 22, 2018

Review:  A fascinating history of Rome’s “first millennium.” Mary Beard not only provides a history of ancient Rome but discusses how the Romans viewed themselves over time and the lasting influence of Roman history over modern politics and culture. Much of what we think we know about ancient Rome comes from modern paintings and film and Beard returns to the original sources, complicating popular perceptions of Roman life. Beard includes both textual sources, which have informed past histories of Rome, and recent archaeological discoveries. The chapters devoted to high politics and philosophy are interspersed with social history, discussing Roman families and the thriving bar and cafe culture where many less affluent Romans spent their spare time. The book is written in a readable style and includes numerous illustrations and a family tree showing the complicated genealogy of Rome’s Emperors.

#54 of 365 Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Genre: Philosophy

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: February 22-23, 2018

Review: I found the Meditations interesting as a historical document, especially having just read a history of ancient Rome, and it’s fascinating that a Roman Emperor left such extensive evidence of his personal philosophy. However, I thought the stoic philosophy put forward in the book seemed very severe and contrary to human nature. I’m not sure if it’s possible or even desirable to maintain complete inner serenity in the face of extreme adversity. We are all shaped by our experiences and have emotional responses to the events in our lives. The audiobook is well read by Duncan Steen.

#55 of 365 Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: February 24, 2018

Review: The best of David Sedaris’ books. I enjoy his sketches on the This American Life podcast and began reading (and listening to) his books last year. The sections set in France are particularly hilarious as Sedaris learns French from an instructor who hurls insults at him until the language becomes clear. Perhaps the funniest chapter is where Sedaris mistaken for a French pickpocket by a pair of American tourists speaking English loudly on the Paris metro. As always, there are chapters about Sedaris’s eccentric family including his sister Amy, who comes to Christmas dinner in a fat suit, prompting lectures on healthy eating from their father. A fun and enjoyable read.

#56 of 365 The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Genre: Classic Novel

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 35 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read: February 23-25, 2018

Review: There are many similarities between the Phantom of the Opera novel and musical, including the dramatic scene where the chandelier comes down. While the musical emphasizes sound and spectacle, however, the novel is written in the unadorned style of 19th century detective fiction, presenting the “facts” of the case of the opera ghost and the investigations by the managers and police. While there is extensive backstory provided for the Phantom, named Erik in the novel, Raoul and Christine remain fairly one dimensional characters. The best character in the novel is the opera house itself with its secret passageways, trapdoors and underground lakes.

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