Books I’ve Read This Week: Library Books and Audiobooks

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 12: Library Books and Audiobooks: My recent reading has been a combination of library books for work and audiobooks for fun. I gave a lecture about the Spanish Inquisition on March 20, as part of my Imperial Spain course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and a lecture about Queen Victoria and Canada on March 21 for the University Lecture Series. I am also working on a Canadian Encyclopedia article about Pauline Vanier, viceregal consort of Canada from 1959 to 1967. In between lecture preparation and article research, I listened to a couple of short audiobooks and read two more books from the Penguin Monarchs. Here are the past week’s reviews:

#78 of 365 The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 248 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 19, 2018

Review:  A good overview of the Spanish Inquisition and the relationship between Church and State in Early Modern Spain. There is a fascinating chapter about how the Inquisition assessed books to be banned, an issue satirized in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, including the cultural impact of these policies. The book did not, however, include the details of specific trials and I am not sure if I agree with some of the author’s comparisons to modern totalitarian states. The book is worth reading as part of a longer reading list about the Spanish Inquisition.

#79 of 365 Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours, 57 minutes

Date Read: March 19-20

Review: A fun audiobook, narrated by the author. I enjoyed hearing about Kaling’s adventures attending an American state dinner and learning that her book had been Malia Obama’s vacation reading. Her Harvard Law speech, which referenced both the Supreme court and Legally Blonde, was also entertaining. The book ends with some nice remarks about confidence.

#80 of 365 Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 752 pages

Dates Read: March 20-March 21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review:  An engaging biography of Queen Victoria, which captures her personality and wide range of interests. Baird places Victoria in the context of her times, highlighting the social issues and changing attitudes toward women over the course of the 19th century. As a female Head of State, Victoria inspired other women interested in achieving a greater role in public life, even though she was personally opposed to women’s suffrage and women joining a number of the professions. This focus on Victoria’s influence as a woman in power makes this biography stand out from the many others about the Queen. The contradictions within Victoria’s character and relationships are also well illustrated here.

There are a few points where I disagree with Baird’s analysis. Like A.N. Wilson, author of Victoria: A Life, she argues that Victoria had romantic feelings toward Lord Melbourne while I agree with Kate Williams, author of Becoming Queen that she viewed him more as a father figure and “favorite tutor.” I was also disappointed to see some of the speculation about Princess Louise from Lucinda Hawksley’s recent biography of the Princess repeated as fact.

Overall, I enjoyed Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria, which demonstrates that more than a century after the Queen’s death, there are still fresh perspectives and interpretations of her long life.

#81 The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Genre: Classic Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Read: March 20-22, 2018

Review:  I was drawn to this audiobook because it is a female coming of age novel and is read by Susan Sarandon. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the novel. The Member of the Wedding is well written and the audiobook is well read but there is very little plot and what does happen is unsettling. There are endless long conversations between Frankie and Bernice in the kitchen at sunset, which appear to be the background to a story that never unfolds. Frankie’s reflections are repetitive. The Member of the Wedding reminded me of Catcher in the Rye, another book that I respect but did not enjoy.

#82 of 365 Athelstan: The Making of England by Tom Holland

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Date Read: March 24, 2018

Review: The epic first installment of the Penguin Monarchs series, describing Athelstan’s achievements uniting England more than one thousand years ago including establishing diplomatic relations with continental European powers and managing a fractious royal succession. Athelstan’s personality and even the site of the most decisive battle of his reign remain elusive but the book discusses the political and religious influences of his times and the family who shaped his childhood and adolescence including his grandfather, Alfred the Great, his father, Edward the Elder and his warrior queen aunt, Aethelflaed of Mercia. I am pleased that the Penguin Monarchs series includes volumes about the most influential monarchs from the Houses of Wessex and Denmark as it is essential to start before 1066 to understand the foundations of England and the monarchy.

#83 of 365 Cnut: The North Sea King by Ryan Lavelle

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardover, 120 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 24-25, 2018

Review: A surprisingly dry biography of a king famous for ordering the seas to obey him! Lavelle addresses major themes and incidents in Cnut’s reign but I found that the book was missing valuable context concerning the Viking invasions and the differences between Danish and English ideas of kingship. In contrast to the biography of Athelstan in the same series, there was little information about the formative influences over Cnut and how they might have shaped his kingship. There were some fascinating sections in the second half of the book, however, concerning the king’s complicated personal life and his relationship with the church.

#84 and #85 of 365 Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple by Mary Frances Coady and One Woman’s Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier by Deborah Cowley and George Cowley

Genre: Biography:

Format: Hardcover, 283 pages and Paperback, 175 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: March 25-28, 2018 and March 28, 2018

Reviews: Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple is a well written and well researched biography of Governor General of Canada Georges Vanier (1959-1967) and his wife, Pauline Vanier, a noted humanitarian and one of the first Companions of the Order of Canada. Coady discusses their personalities, marriage and public life, drawing upon a wide range of sources including fascinating correspondence with their five children. I would have been interested to read more about Georges Vanier’s term as Governor General, which is confined to a few chapters. An engaging and interesting read.

One Woman’s Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier is an engaging short biography of Pauline Vanier. The main source for the book are recordings of 18 hours recollections by Pauline Vanier, which display warmth, keen observations of other political figures of time and a self deprecating sense of humour. I found Pauline Vanier’s conversations with royalty to be especially interesting including the advice she received from Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, a previous viceregal consort of Canada (1940-1946) as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s observation during a difficult 1964 visit to Quebec, “Every time the politicians appear to get more nervous, I seem to get calmer.” A fascinating read.

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