Books I’ve Read This Week: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy 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 16: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy and Memoir: The last seven books on my reading list came from a variety of genres. I began by reading three historical novels, set around the same time period (from the French Revolution to the American Civil Wars with Queen Victoria’s accession in between these two events) then some 20th century philosophy about the pursuit of happiness, followed by a Second World War historical novel, a modern prison memoir and a medieval epic poem. Here are the past week’s reviews:

#106 of 365 Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 22-April 25, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 29 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An enjoyable novel, which dramatizes the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign as a coming of age story. The best scenes are from Victoria’s perspective, showing her learning from her mistakes and growing into her new position as Queen. I liked the idea that Victoria was inspired by past Queens such as Mary II, who acquired Kensington Palace where Victoria grew up and Queen Elizabeth I.

In common with the PBS Victoria series inspired by the novel, however, there is too much scheming behind the scenes by the Duke of Cumberland and John Conroy, which moves the narrative away from Victoria’s own experiences. I found the fictionalized “romance” between Victoria and her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, unconvincing as well. Prince Albert is introduced too late in the novel, considering that Victoria had met him before her accession.

There are also some distracting historical inaccuracies. While the author made some changes to history to advance the plot of the novel, such as keeping the Duke of Cumberland in England after Victoria became Queen, when he in fact traveled to Hanover to take up his new position as King of Hanover in 1837, other historical inaccuracies seem unnecessary. The future Czar Alexander II, who indeed visited Queen Victoria’s court, is depicted as the son of Victoria’s godfather, Alexander I, when he was in fact the son of Alexander I’s brother Nicholas I and his betrothed is described as a Danish princess, when Alexander II actually married a Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt and it was his son who married a Danish princess.

I would have preferred the novel to follow the historical record more closely as the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign are a fascinating time period that does not require major changes to provide dramatic material for novelists.

#107 of 365 Varina by Charles Frazier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 356 pages

Dates Read: April 25-26, 2018

Review: Cold Mountain is one of my favourite novels and so I was delighted to see that Charles Frazier had written a new historical novel about the American Civil War. The novel imagines the reminiscences of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy in her old age, after being contacted by James Blake, an African-American man who had once been a young boy in her care during her flight from Richmond.  In her conversation with James, Varina grapples with the society she grew up in and the decisions made by her stubborn, misguided husband, Jefferson Davis.

Frazier does not only focus on Varina’s relationship with her often absent husband but her friendships with the prominent women of her times, including the diarist Mary Chestnut and even, after the end of the Civil War, American First Lady Julia Grant. The strongest scenes in the novel depict Varina, her children and James attempting the flee the confederacy at the end of the Civil War, meeting a variety of characters from union deserters to a bigoted teenage plantation owner in scenes reminiscent of Cold Mountain. A very absorbing and well written novel.

#108 of 365 The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Genre: Classic Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: April 25-26, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel resembles Zorro set during the French Revolution with a masked swordsman referred to as a fox who achieves daring rescues under the cover of darkness. The Scarlet Pimpernel in fact inspired Zorro and all subsequent stories about heroic figures with secret identities. The melodramatic plot is engaging but the characters are one dimensional and there are a lot of stereotypes, especially involving men and women or the English and the French. A fun but forgettable classic novel.

#109 of 365 The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

Genre: Philosophy

Genre: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Date Read: April 28, 2018

Review: My book club chose The Conquest of Happiness for this month and the book prompted a great deal of discussion. Russell presents a curious combination of ideas that remain relevant today and dated concepts that reflect the political conditions and stereotypes of his times. Perhaps the most insightful chapters concern the importance of thinking outside yourself to achieve happiness. Those who think of lifelong learning, world events, and other people in their lives will be happier than those who focus on their own deficiencies and the social pressure that surrounds them. In contrast, Russell’s judgment of childless people as cutting themselves off from “the stream of life” is dated and narrow minded. An interesting and influential book but very much a product of its times.

#110 of 365 The German Girl by Joy Osmanski

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 26-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 48 minutes

Review: A melancholy novel about the St. Louis, a ship full of German refugees that was turned away from North America at the beginning of the Second World War. The scenes aboard the ship are very moving but the later scenes in Cuba could use more detail. The audiobook was generally well read but because there are two points of view alternated in the book – Hannah, a passenger on the St. Louis, and her great-niece Anna, who is searching for information about her father – two audiobook narrators would have been helpful to keeping the past and present scenes distinct, especially because there are so many parallels between Hannah and Anna.

#111 of 365 Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: April 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: I am enjoying the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black and found the memoir interesting and enjoyable to read but very different from the TV show. While the series provides the back stories for numerous inmates, the book focuses very closely on Piper’s experiences and how she is perceived by the guards and other prisoners because of her privileged background. The book describes daily life behind bars in detail including the bonds and rivalries that develop between the inmates, work assignments and hobbies, and the disconnect between the prison routine and the skills required to succeed in the outside world. I would have been interested to read more about the post-prison lives of Piper and her fellow inmates.

#112 of 365 Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

Genre: Classic 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read: April 30-May 1, 2018

Review: Epic poetry, well read by George Guidall. The verse translation from Old English by Seamus Heaney captures the drama of Beowulf’s rise to power and battles. The final hour of the audiobook is an essay by the translator about the place of Beowulf in English literature, the reasons why the poem has not entered the cultural imagination in the manner of The Odyssey or the Iliad and how the language speaks to an earlier, more global history. Highly recommended.

 

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