Books I’ve Read This Week: Nordic History and Culture

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 35: Nordic History and Culture: While traveling in northern Europe in August, I visited Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland and read numerous books about the society and culture of these Nordic nations. I also read a couple of history books about Finland and a Nobel Prize winning work of Icelandic literature. Here are this week’s reviews:

#239 of 365 The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by  Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 208 pages

Date Read: August 30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Review:  A relaxing read, especially in the Rosenborg Castle cafe on a rainy day in Copenhagen. The authors examine Danish culture and its effect on how children in Denmark grow up. The advice they provide is not just applicable to parents but to anyone seeking to live a less stressful life. They observe that Danes practice rational optimism, not necessarily ignoring difficult circumstances but finding a silver lining. The importance of spending plenty of time outside and keeping up social connections is also emphasized. I was interested to read about the role of Denmark’s royal family in the education system. Crown Princess Mary spearheaded an anti-bullying initiative that more than 90% of Danish teachers would recommend to other educators. A quick and interesting read.

#240 of 365 The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth 

Genre: Travel/Society and Culture

Date Read: August 30-31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Paperback, 406 pages

Review:  An entertaining read that passed the time on the train between Copenhagen and a visit to Hamlet’s Castle Kronborg in Helsingor. Michael Booth is a British journalist married to a Dane who has spent time living in Denmark and traveled to the other Nordic countries. He analyzes how these nations differ from one another in terms of their history and culture. I enjoyed how he explored the individual and collective histories of the region and speculates about how past political upheavals, little discussed today, continue to shape Nordic culture.

As a travelogue, the book is very funny as Booth struggles with visiting a Finnish sauna, joining a Danish choir and finding the right clothes for Norwegian National Day. The book becomes less enjoyable when the author’s personal biases prevent him from providing a balanced perspective on certain aspects of Nordic politics and culture. For example, Booth is strongly anti-monarchy and cannot conceive of why there is so much support for the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish monarchies. As a result, he focuses on the few republicans he meets rather than all the people who have more positive views of their royal family and could speak to their charity work or diplomatic role. There are other instances in the book when the author has real trouble looking beyond his own worldview. An entertaining book but it should be read alongside other perspectives about Northern Europe.

#241 of 365 An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland by Jonathan Clements

Genre: Travel/History

Date Read: August 31. 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Hardcover, 179 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki last week and greatly enjoyed learning more about Finnish history and culture. The author is a British travel writer married to a Finn who explains the various periods of Finnish history with insight and humour. The Swedish and Russian influences are especially well explained. The book also contains an extensive discussion of Finnish food and drink, (which the author does not consider to be very good), and various points of interest in Finnish cities. There is a useful further reading section and Finnish film suggestions at the end. There are maps but the inclusion of a few phrases of the language would have been useful. A very helpful book for travelers and other readers seeking an introduction to Finland’s history.

#242 of 365 The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

Genre: Advice

Date Read: August 31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Hardcover, 287 pages

Review: A relaxing read, especially for a cozy evening in Copenhagen. This witty and beautifully illustrated book explains the Danish concept of Hygge and provides suggestions for incorporating more quiet moments of happiness into everyday life. I enjoyed the descriptions of Danish traditions including the cakeman at children’s birthday parties and the search for the almond at Christmas dinner. A breezy read, best enjoyed indoors with a hot drink.

#243 of 365 No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917 by Tony Lurcock

Genre: History/Travel

Date Read: September 1-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Paperback, 258 pages

Review:  I am pleased that I bought this book in Helsinki last month and read it in Iceland because it provides a fascinating portrait of how Finland was perceived by 19th century travelers. Each chapter is devoted to the reminiscences of a single traveler and there are a few famous figures including Lord Dufferin, the future Governor General of Canada. Although Finland was a Grand Duchy ruled by Russian Czars during this time period, the British tourists excerpted in the book describe a society with many similarities to 21st century Finland including gender equality (Finnish women were the first European women to receive the vote), a strong education system, breathtaking scenery, a comparatively egalitarian society and a thriving sauna culture. I was fascinated by the chapters devoted to the Baltic front of the Crimean War as these naval engagements are little known outside the region. An interesting and informative book, filled with the observations of 19th century tourists!

#244 of 365 The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir

Date Read: September 2, 2018

Genre: Travel/Society

Acquired: Purchased from the Geysir Gift Shop in Iceland

Format: Hardcover, 142 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Geysir gift shop in Iceland for the bus trip back to Reykjavik. The Icelandic born author, who has lived in many places around the world and written a blog about Iceland’s financial crisis, includes many entertaining anecdotes about Icelandic society including “the shower police” at public swimming pools, buses not always arriving on time and everything happening at the last minute. I would have liked a little more historical context and comparisons with other Nordic countries but The Little Book of the Icelanders is a fun read and a good introduction to Icelandic society for travelers.

#245 of 365 Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Genre: Classic Literature

Date Read: September 3, 2018

Acquired: Eymundsson Books, Reykjavik

Format: Paperback, 512 pages

Review: A classic in Icelandic literature and perfect the flight back to Toronto on Icelandair. A stubborn sheep farmer is determined to maintain his independence and property at all costs, even if his goals lead to the breakdown of his family. The novel, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures the atmosphere of rural Iceland with its sheep farms and mountains. It was interesting to read how the First World War was perceived in Iceland. There seems to have been a feeling of being remote from wider European events until “the Blessed War” led to skyrocketing demand for Icelandic wool and mutton, bringing small farmers out of poverty. Aside from the references to the war and the Russian Revolution, there is a timelessness to the narrative and a clear atmosphere of centuries of Icelandic farmers struggling to survive in an often hostile climate. Well worth reading, especially for visitors to Iceland.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Book Pile

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 33: The Book Pile: In mid-August, I read books from a variety of genres including Canadian history, science fiction, autobiography, mythology, comedy and fun novels. There was no real theme beyond the fact that all these books captured my interest and most are by authors who I have read before. Here are this week’s reviews:

#225 of 365 A Short History of Canada: Seventh Edition by Desmond Morton

Genre: History

Date Read: August 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: AlthoughA Short History of Canada is over 400 pages long, it is a little too short, especially in the early chapters prior to Confederation in 1867. The book focuses primarily on political and economic developments with a small amount of social and cultural history, including some bleak depictions of pioneer life on the frozen frontier. The strongest chapters discuss how Canada’s economy changed over time as well as the different visions of Canada by successive Prime Ministers. There are a few mentions of royal tours but the impact of the constitutional monarchy and Canadian responses to this system of government receive little attention. The book would benefit from the inclusion of a bibliography and further reading suggestions considering how quickly major historical developments are summarized in the text. Well written and readable but too short, even for a short history, considering the breadth of the material.

#226 of 365 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Date Read: August 11, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: Having read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I was curious to read another novel with the premise that the protagonist lives the same life multiple times and has to decide whether to make dramatic changes to historic events. While Life After Life focuses on a single family with the ability relive their own lives, Harry August discovers a Cronus Club of people like himself who pass messages through the centuries. When the messages indicate that the end of the world is occurring sooner than expected, Harry August must take action and the story builds to a dramatic showdown with another time traveler like himself.

There are moments of dry humour in the book including how Harry laments in numerous lives that central heating takes a long time to become ubiquitous. His discovery of the Cronus Club through the newspaper classified ads is also an entertaining twist. Amidst the action, there are some interesting philosophical discussions about the effect that time travel for even a few seconds would have on the course of human history. A fun and interesting read.

#227 of 365 The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation by Charlotte Gray

Genre: History

Date Read: August 12, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 336 pages

Review: A absorbing book by one of my favourite authors of Canadian history.The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation is not just the story of a murder trial but a social history of Toronto during the First World War. Gray examines how the shooting of Bert Massey by his housemaid, Carrie Davies, was perceived in the Toronto newspapers and how responses to the trial reflected the values of the time. There is a lot of interesting analysis of women’s rapidly changing roles in society both among the elites and in domestic service. There is also extensive discussion of the justice system of the time and how the reputations of the accused and the deceased had the ability to shape the outcome of the trial. The book concludes with an examination of the source material and the reasons why the trial passed into obscurity.

#228 of 365 My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

Genre: Memoir

Date Read: August 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 268 pages

Review: I greatly enjoyed the beginning and end of this memoir. Lady Antonia Fraser is one of three generations of royal biographers, Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser and Flora Fraser. She begins her reminiscences with the observation “The study of History has always been an essential part of the enjoyment of life,” a sentiment that I share. The last chapter of the book is fascinating, detailing her travels while researching her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots including conflicts with the tour guides of Sterling Castle and noting how myths about historical figures become popular knowledge. In between, however, there are too many tangents about Fraser’s extended family and social circle and not enough about her development as a historian. I would have liked to read more about Fraser’s historical interests and less about high society during the 1940s.

#229 of 365 Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Genre: Fiction/Mythology

Dates Read: August 16-17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Icelandair 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours

Review:   “The Gods created and sun and moon and with them time.” Not just about Norse mythology but the experience of reading mythology and discovering that these stories are unlike any others. A British “thin child” with asthma is evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz in the Second World War and becomes fascinated by Norse myths about the battle between the Gods and the end of the world. The thin child enjoys reading books from beginning to end, including their introductions but she does not enjoy analysis of how the Norse myths relate to other creation stories as she wishes to keep them entirely separate from every other story she has ever heard.

The narrative goes back and forth between the myths and the thin child’s pursuit of knowledge as “she liked seeing, and learning, and naming things. Daisies. Days-eyes.” The Gods are all larger than life figures except for Loki, who shows wit and a distinct personality. The book ends with A.S. Byatt’s own views on reading mythology and how they informed the novel.

#230 of 365 When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Dates Read: August 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 323 pages

Review:  An entertaining essay collection. The best sections were about his travels and book tours, including how his taste in hotels changed until he became an “insufferable snob,” the quirks of his fellow airline passengers and cultural differences that he encounters as he visits different places around the world. There is London where everything is “painfully expensive,” Paris where tourists argue underneath his window and Tokyo where he encounters curious translations of everyday instructions. What to do “When you are engulfed in flames” comes from the Japanese hotel fire safety instructions. There are not quite enough vignettes about his parents and siblings compared to his other books and “the smoking section” about his efforts to quit goes on a bit too long but much of this book is hilarious.

#231 of 365 The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: August 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Review: The 5th installment in the 44 Scotland Street series. The characters continue to be charming and the Scottish setting engaging but the plot lines are starting to become repetitive. Bertie continues to rebel against his mother and have difficulties with Olive at school. Bruce continues to be overly concerned with his appearance and Angus is focused on the adventures of his dog, Cyril. I was surprised that Pat, a major character in the previous books only appeared briefly in this volume as a guest at Matthew’s wedding. I would have liked a few scenes about how everything was going at the art gallery while Matthew and Elspeth were on their honeymoon. A enjoyable read but I preferred some of the earlier books in the series.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Audible Daily Deal

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 32: The Audible Daily Deal In addition to reading traditional books and e-books, I have been enjoying listening to audio books over the course of the year. I have a subscription to Audible and I have discovered new books through their daily deals. When I see a book that looks interesting on sale there, I add it to my reading list! The result has been the expansion of my reading choices in a wide variety of genres including both historical and current memoirs, mysteries, popular science, and art history inspired historical fiction. Here are this week’s reviews:

#218 of 365 The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

Genre: Memoir

Date Listened: August 5-6, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 33 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: I thought the premise for this book was interesting. The author decided to restrict her spending to essentials for a year and found that this process resulted in other improvements in her life. The book was different than I expected though. I thought that there would be a blend of memoir and the author’s reflections on consumerism and society. Instead, the book is strictly a memoir with some tips at the end for those inclined to undertake a similar challenge. There are numerous sections concerning the author’s family and her other struggles with overindulgence that are interesting but do not relate directly to consumer culture. The author is Canadian and I enjoyed reading the references to Victoria, Kingston and other Canadian cities. Engaging but not quite what I expected.

#219 of 365 The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Mystery of 1920s Bombay by Sujata Massey

Genre: Mystery

Date Listened: August 6-9, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 34 minutes

Review: An richly textured novel, and the 1st volume in a new mystery series inspired by the career of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer. Massey evokes the culture of 1920s Bombay with its wide variety of religions, cultures and views about the role of women in society. Perveen Mistry is an engaging heroine, working as a solicitor in her father’s law firm and collecting testimony and evidence from women in seclusion. A case concerning the inheritance of three widows quickly expands to encompass murder and kidnapping. There is also a harrowing back story concerning Perveen’s disastrous early marriage. Perveen is surrounded by interesting characters including Alice Hobson-Jones, her outspoken best friend from her legal studies at Oxford. The audiobook narrator reads a little too melodramatically as the narrator but does well with the dialogue.

#220 of 365 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan

Genre: Popular Science

Dates Listened: August 9-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 31 minutes

Review: A very enjoyable audiobook, bursting with enthusiasm about the universe and intellectual curiosity about new discoveries and what else might be out there waiting to be discovered. The sections about comets as well as the discoveries by the Voyager spacecraft were especially interesting. Since the book was first published in 1980, there are some dated references to the Cold War as an ongoing event. Sagan’s enthusiasm for reaching out to possible extraterrestrial life also seems a little dated today as other scientists have argued that a first contact of this kind could be disastrous for humanity. Well read by LeVar Burton. Includes an introduction by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

#221 of 365 The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: August 12-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 13 hours and 36 minutes

Review: An enjoyable novel inspired by the parents of Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro whose marriage caused a scandal in the small Jewish community on the Island of St. Thomas. The descriptions of the island are lush and detailed, including turtles nesting on the beach and pirate wives growing avocado trees along the coast. I especially liked the opening chapters about Rachel Pomier’s childhood and the difficulties that she faced as a young woman in a male dominated society. The chapters focused on her son Camille Pissarro’s youth were less interesting to me as there was a strong focus on him investigating family secrets rather than his development as an artist. The connection between Rachel and her friend Jestine, confirmed near the end of the novel was unsurprising, considering previous events. The novel ends with a afterword that explains the history that informs the historical fiction.

#222 of 365 No Time to Spare by Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: August 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 6 hours and 33 minutes

Review: I enjoyed reading Ursula Le Guin’s essays about writing, feminism, childhood and growing older. She begins with her invitation to her 60th reunion at Harvard (she attended Harvard’s sister school, Radcliffe College) and considers the life events that take place over a 60 year period. There is an amusing essay about the fan mail she receives from children who often say they are her “hugest fan.” In my opinion, there were a few too many essays about her cat but cat owners will probably disagree! The essays are well read by Barbara Caruso on the audiobook.

#223 of 365 The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

Genre: History

Date Listened: August 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 31 minutes

Review:  An overview of the political and intellectual history of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt. The authors observe that “The Ptolemies wanted to know everything, not just their own history and religious texts.” The library at Alexandria played a key role in the development of Christianity by translating Hebrew religious texts. Interesting to hear about ideas from Alexandria that had a lasting impact on subsequent history, such as the Julian calendar, brought back from Egypt by Julius Caesar during his relationship with Queen Cleopatra VII. There are also examples of inventions that were ahead of their time that would be taken up again centuries later. The book ends with the tragic fate of the philosopher Hypatia and the decline of Alexandria as an intellectual centre. Both the text and the narration of the audiobook are sometimes a bit dry but the inventions and events discussed are fascinating.

#224 of 365 Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Genre: History/Memoir

Date Listened: August 16, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: One of the most famous memoirs in American history. Renowned educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, described his determination to acquire an education and improve the lives of other African-Americans. The early chapters are especially compelling as Washington describes the bleak conditions of slavery then the obstacles he faced to continuing his education during Reconstruction. The narrative is infused with his drive to succeed and a very positive attitude, considering the circumstances of the times. He describes how as a child, “I began to get together my 1st library. I secured a dry goods box, knocked out 1 side of it, put some shelves in it and began putting into it every kind of book that I could get my hands upon.” The later chapters of the book are focused Tuskegee Institute. An interesting and historically significant book.

Books I’ve Read This Week: American History and Literature

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 31: American History and Literature: In addition to reading about Queen and Empresses, I have been reading a blend of history and historical fiction in recent weeks with an American theme. The non-fiction focuses on women in American history including a book on Sally Hemings and her family at Monticello in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a history of the role of American women in code breaking during the Second World War, a biography of the last Queen of Hawaii and a biography of etiquette expert Emily Post. The historical fiction imagines the lives of May Alcott, the younger sister of Louisa May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in Little Women, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop, who was one of the first settlers in Puritan Massachusetts and a Nigerian perspective on race and society in the modern United States.  Here are this week’s reviews:

#211 of 365 The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Genre: History

Dates Listened: July 22-July 27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 30 hours and 40 minutes

Review: An extensively researched and nuanced history of the Hemings family at Monticello. While Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are well known, Gordon-Reed also reconstructs the lives of Sally Hemings’ mother Elizabeth, who was of African and English descent, her siblings including Paris trained chef James Hemings who comes to a tragic end, and her extended family.

The author examines a wide variety of surviving evidence including the reminiscences of Sally Hemings’s son Madison Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence and papers and archaeological excavations of Elizabeth Hemings’s cabin. When there are gaps in the source material, Gordon-Reed outlines various possibilities shaped by the conditions of the time and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is not only a family saga but an examination of slavery, the position of women, and the law in colonial America and revolutionary Paris. The book ends with the sale of Monticello and I would have been interested to read more about subsequent generations in the Hemings family.

#212 of 365 The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 27-30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Paperback, 27 hours and 33 minutes

Review:  A richly detailed classic historical novel about Elizabeth Fones, one of the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony whose controversial third marriage scandalized Puritan New England. As in her most famous novel Katherine, Seton devotes much attention to the society and culture of the times, paying special attention to the subtle religious differences within communities as well as larger, more well known conflicts. The characters include Elizabeth Fones herself, the poet Anne Bradstreet and religious leader Anne Hutchinson. There are even cameo appearances by King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria and the founder of New France, Samuel de Champlain, who are all critical of the Puritans.

There is so much history in the novel that Elizabeth and her strong personality sometimes fade in the background in the middle of the novel, especially during the scenes concerning Anne Hutchinson, who commands the attention of the reader as well as her contemporaries. Even when the novel meanders away from the main character and her story, The Winthrop Woman remains engaging because Elizabeth Fones lived in such tumultuous times and Anya Seton has researched Stuart England and Colonial America extensively.

#213 of 365 The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the artist May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in her older sister Louisa’s famous novel, Little Women. The novel begins with the publication of Little Women, which receives excellent reviews except for May’s illustrations, which are dismissed as amateur. May is determined to be taken seriously for her art and studies in England and France, eventually having her work accepted in major exhibitions. The cast of characters includes a variety of 19th century women artists, both famous and more obscure, including Mary Cassatt, Princess Louise, Marie Bashkirtseff and Berthe Morisot.

Hooper provides an engaging portrait of both the complicated relationship between Louisa and May and the conflict between artistic fulfillment and earning a living that many authors and artists face. May has great ambitions to become a professional artist and have a happy and fulfilling personal life, seeking to be successful in all aspects of life during a time when women were encouraged to have more modest expectations. An engaging read about a little known artist and her famous family.

#214 of 365 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Date Listened: July 31-August 1, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 28 minutes

Review: An insightful novel about race and cultural differences between the United States and Nigeria. Ifemelu moves to the United States to study and becomes a popular blogger on race. She observes how the blog comes to shape her life, noting, “Now that she was asked to speak at roundtables and panels, on public radio and community radio,always identified simply as The Blogger, she felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog.” Her observations are fascinating and cover everything from the differences between how the English language is spoken in Nigeria and America, food, customer service and education as well as race and society. There are also some incisive comments on the influence of blogging and social media. Highly recommended.

#215 of 365 Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy

Genre: History

Date Read: August 2-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 4 minutes

Review: An interesting book about the little known American female code breakers of the Second World War and their impact on the course of the war in the Pacific. Mundy covers a lot of topics including American attitudes toward higher education for women in the 1940s, the nature of codebreaking, the role of women in the Allied war effort and daily life for individual code breakers. There are some fascinating women profiled in the book including Dorothy Braden, who was running a high school almost singlehandedly until she had the opportunity to turn her talents to codebreaking and Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye, the mother of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The structure of the book sometimes jumps around between these topics, moving quickly from historical overviews of the war and codebreaking to the experiences of individual women but overall, a fascinating book.

#216 of 365 Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 415 pages

Review: Lost Kingdom is not just a biography of Queen Liliʻuokalani but a history of 19th century Hawaii and how the islands were ultimately annexed by the United States against the wishes of the Hawaiian people. Siler places Hawaii within the wider context of colonialism in the Pacific as Britain, France and Germany claimed other Pacific islands and the United States argued that Hawaii, its sugar plantations and its naval base at Pearl Harbour, were too important to be allowed to remain under the authority of Queen Liliʻuokalani. Once the annexation was complete, former President Grover Cleveland stated, “Hawai’i is ours…as I contemplate the means used to complete the outrage,I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Liliʻuokalani emerges as a proud and complicated figure shaped by both Hawaiian court traditions and an education in missionary schools. Siler provides a detailed overview of how Liliʻuokalani was perceived in the United States within the context of the racial prejudices of the late 19th century. I would have been interested to read more about Liliʻuokalani’s attendance at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and how she was perceived in Britain during the celebrations. A compelling read.

#217 of 365 Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased at Book City, Toronto

Date Read: August 6, 2018

Format: Paperback, 525 pages

Review: This comprehensive biography of Emily Post begins slowly, placing her parents within the wider context of the gilded age then gains momentum, examining Emily’s work as a novelist, businesswoman and etiquette expert within the context of the rapidly changing social mores of the 1920s and 1930s. Post belonged to an accomplised family. Her father, Bruce Price, designed the Chateau Frontenac and other Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels and stations and was even mistaken for the Duke of Connaught during a Canadian royal tour.

Emily suffered from setbacks in her personal life. Despite her interest in architecture, her gender and social class precluded her joining her father in business and her marriage ended in divorce. After the end of her marriage, she became a prolific writer who was always sensitive to the changing times. Some of the most interesting sections of the book concern how her etiquette advice altered and expanded as the years passed. She revised her Etiquette guides, removing sections on chaperones and adding advice for conversing with airplane seatmates. Post’s life and advice are interspersed with the history of New York and the major historical events of her lifetime. A fascinating read.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Queens and Empresses

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 30: Queens and Empresses: In recent weeks, I have been reading extensively about one of my favourite topics, the political and cultural influence of royal women. I will be delivering a lecture about Catherine the Great and the Hermitage later this month as part of a royal history lecture series on a Baltic Sea cruise and I have therefore been reading extensively about Catherine’s famous art collection. I am also working on a feature article about royal wedding dresses to be published in time for Princess Eugenie’s wedding this October, and so I have been reading more about royal fashions from the eighteenth century to the present day. I also recently read three more titles from the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power series. Here are this week’s reviews:

#204 of 365 Royal Women and Dynastic Loyalty edited by Caroline Dunn and Elizabeth Carney

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 207 pages

Acquired: Borrowed From Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review: A collection of articles about royal women and their contributions to royal dynasties from classical times to the 19th century. While there are familiar figures examined in this volume, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James I’s queen, Anna of Denmark, most of the contributors examine comparatively overlooked figures. There are chapters concerning Empress Elizabeth Christine (the mother of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the grandmother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France), and the little known royal women of the 17th century Ottoman Empire who served as stabilizing figures during an uncertain time for their ruling house. 

The authors draw conclusions that continue to be relevant to the history of monarchical government, women and power, and royal court culture. For example, in her chapter on Queenship and the Currency of Arts Patronage as Propaganda at the Early Stuart Court, Wendy Hitchmough observes that royal palaces continue to be sites of national identity and memory, as demonstrated by the recent Remembrance Day poppies installation at the Tower of London and the role of Kensington Palace as a site for mourning Diana, Princess of Wales.

Since the book is based on a series of conference papers, the chapters are short and sometimes end abruptly, especially the opening chapter about King’s Daughters, Sisters, and Wives: Fonts and Conduits of Power and Legitimacy by Waldemar Heckel. I hope that the contributors will expand their research into longer articles and books as the chapters in this volume examine important and often overlooked historical figures and their contributions to dynastic legitimacy.

#205 of 365 The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

Genre: Biography/Art History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review:The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great’s art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style, and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great’s reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city, Catherine the Great’s influence on architecture, and her role in setting wider cultural trends.

In addition to detailing Catherine’s cultural activities, Jaques explains the ultimate fate of the paintings acquired by the Empress. While some of Catherine’s purchases remain on display at the Hermitage museum, her grandson Czar Nicholas I sold some of the pieces that he judged to be inferior while other acquisitions were destroyed by fire or sold to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the Soviet period. 

Unfortunately, there are some historical errors sprinkled throughout the book, especially toward the beginning and end. The errors concern names, dates, and, most often, the family relationships between royal personages. (For example, Maria Josepha was Maria Theresa’s daughter, not her daughter-in-law. A daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor did not marry a czar, as stated in the book. Instead, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor married a Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III. The title of czar was not in use until their grandson’s reign.) While these errors do not undermine Jaques’s overall argument that Catherine was a key cultural patron with a lasting legacy in a number of different spheres, they are distracting for the reader.

The Empress of Art is an engaging biography of Catherine the Great as a cultural patron that is especially useful for visitors to Saint Petersburg and the city’s Hermitage Museum. Includes illustrations of key paintings and architecture from Catherine’s reign.

#206 of 365 Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe edited by Helen Matheson-PollockJoanne Paul and Catherine Fletcher 

Genre: History

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Format: E-Book, 291 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles about how early modern queens exercised and received political counsel. The book includes fresh perspectives on Tudor and early Stuart era queens who are often reduced to one dimensional portrayals in the popular imagination.

For example, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, closely associated with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V because of the circumstances of the breakdown of her marriage, in fact had a more complicated attitude toward English foreign policy and was not always perceived as placing Spain’s interests first. Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France, famous for marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and incurring the King’s displeasure in fact remained closely interested in Anglo-French relations for the rest of her life, and attempted to maintain her own network of connections during her brief marriage to Louis XII. Mary, Queen of Scots paid careful attention to her household, avoiding appointing the wives of privy Councillors to attend her in a personal capacity in an attempt to separate her public and private spheres. Queen Elizabeth I made use of her classical education to affirm her authority over male Councillors.

In addition to chapters reassessing well known queens, there is analysis of little known queens consort and the manner in which they exerted political influence. The book’s focus on the early modern period allows for exploration of how royal women’s roles were passed through the generations. For example, there is a chapter about Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland followed by a chapter about her daughter, Catherine Jagiellon, Queen of Sweden, two queens consort who deserve to be more well known. The book comes together as a cohesive whole, with parallels drawn between the various queens discussed in individual sections and wider conclusions presented about the range of roles for a queen in the sixteenth century. Highly recommended for scholars and general readers interested in early modern queenship.

#207 of 365 Queens Matter in Early Modern Studies edited by Anna Riehl Bertolet

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 399 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: July 28-August 2, 2018

Review: A collection of scholarly essays dedicated to Carole Levin, the co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power book series. I am honoured that my own book is mentioned in Charles Beem’s essay concerning the development of the series, which states, “…Carolyn Harris’s Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, a provocative comparative study of two queens who suffered miserably at the hands of revolutionary ideologies.” The chapters are divided by theme, presenting a broad range of perspectives on early modern queenship, especially the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. I found the chapters about Elizabeth I’s role as a godparent (she had at least 114 godchildren over the course of her reign including John Harington, inventor of the flush toilet), and the comparisons between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots especially fascinating. An interesting and informative read.

#208 of 365 Catherine the Great: Art for Empire: Masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Genre: Art History

Date Read: July 30, 2018

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 328 pages

Review: The book that accompanied the 2005 Catherine the Great exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A nice balance between beautiful illustrations of works of art collected and commissioned by Catherine the Great, and insightful essays about the different facets of her role as patron of arts. The art historians focus on the variety of different art forms in Catherine’s collection including paintings, sculpture and cameos, her motives for amassing such an extensive art collection, and the question of whether she possessed good taste or was simply a “glutton for art” who bought large collections without considering the merits of the individual works. The essays concerning her patronage of women artists including Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and Marie-Anne Collot are especially interesting. I would have been interested to read a concluding essay about the expansion of the Hermitage museum’s collection after Catherine the Great’s reign.

#209 of 365 The Royal Wedding Dresses by Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner 

Genre: History and Fashion

Date Read: August 2, 2018

Acquired: Read at Toronto Reference Library

Genre: Hardcover, 176 pages

Review: A beautifully illustrated history of royal wedding fashion from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Although the title suggests that the book examines wedding dresses alone, the authors also look at the fashions worn by royal bridegrooms, bridesmaids and guests. There are some fascinating examples of royal brides adapting traditional bridal fashions to reflect their own preferences including Queen Marie of Romania choosing a tulle veil instead of the wedding lace favoured by most of Queen Victoria’s descendants, and her cousin Princess Margaret of Connaught choosing an Irish made gown embroidered with shamrocks to reflect her happy memories of spending time in Ireland as a child. I would be interested to read an updated edition that includes the last few decades of royal wedding fashion.

#210 of 365 Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 299 pages

Review: An excellent read, especially in tandem with Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution by Caroline Weber. Bashor examines the life and hair-raising exploits of Leonard Autie, who rose from obscure origins in Gascony to become Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser and confidant. Both the hairdresser and Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Rose Bertin, became recognizable public figures in their own right and were nicknamed Ministers of Fashion, setting precedents for future celebrity stylists and fashion designers.

I especially enjoyed the chapters about the Flight to Varennes, where Leonard acted as a secret messenger for the King and Queen, and his brother may have unwittingly foiled the royal family’s plan to flee France. Leonard had a long career after the French Revolution, styling the hair of the Russian Imperial family, including the murdered Czar Paul I for his state funeral. Marie Antoinette’s Head is lavishly illustrated with images from the French archives of Marie Antoinette, her family and her famous hairstyles. Highly recommended.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Extraordinary Canadians

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 29: Extraordinary Canadians: Before 2018, I had read and enjoyed two of the biographies in the eighteen volume Extraordinary Canadians series, Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray and Lucy Maud Montgomery,by Jane Urquhart. In recent weeks, I have read seven more books in the series, gaining new perspectives on Canadian history and learning more about important historical figures. Here are this week’s reviews:

#197 of 365 Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto

Genre: Biography

Format: Hardcover, 185 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 19, 2018

Review: A short biography of Canadian artist Emily Carr, structured as a series of essays about her life and times, including the influence of post-Impressionism on her work, the conflict between marriage and creative expression for women of her time, her engagement with the First Nations communities who inspired her work and the recognition that she received as an artist and writer later in life. While Emily Carr led a very interesting life, some of the chapters in the book were repetitive instead of exploring these themes in detail and the further reading section was too short. The author is an artist who did not initially like Carr’s work but came to appreciate her art after seeing the landscapes depicted in her paintings.

#198 of 365 Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 174 pages

Review: I have read and admire a number of Margaret Macmillan’s historical works including Women of the Raj, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace and I enjoyed Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town so I loved reading a blend of MacMillan’s scholarship and Leacock’s humour. Macmillan not only captures the essence of Leacock’s personality with its blend of intellect, humour and melancholy but also gives a good overview of his times and Canada’s gradual emergence from the British Empire. The narrative includes quotations from Leacock’s famous and lesser known works, showing the range of his opinions and work as “a public intellectual in a country that was not yet used to having them.” Highly recommended.

#199 of 365 Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 200 pages

Review: Lord Beaverbrook is the only Canadian to be mentioned in Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix (in a scene where the former King Edward VIII lists his friends in Britain) and author David Adams Richards observes that he was one of the most important and influential Canadians in a global context over the course of the 20th century. This short biography provides an interesting and enthusiastic overview of his life, achievements and shortcomings. The author’s opinions, however, sometimes overwhelm the narrative. Both Richards and Beaverbrook grew up in the same town in New Brunswick and Richards often attributes opinions to Beaverbrook based entirely on his own experiences of the culture of small town New Brunswick. A good read but the author’s asides about how things are done in Miramichi are sometimes distracting from the overall biography.

#200 of 365 Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin by John Ralston Saul

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 22, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 272 pages

Review: An excellent dual biography of two Canadian political figures who deserve to be better known for their development of the reform movement for Responsible Government and other contributions to modern Canadian politics, education and society. John Ralston Saul presents the closely intertwined personal and political lives of Baldwin and LaFontaine. They were both surrounded by strong women. Baldwin’s daughter Maria became his unofficial private secretary, declaring confidently “Do you think I have lived all my life among politicians for nothing? No indeed! Politics are with me as though they were a second nature.” LaFontaine’s wife Adele worked on behalf of political prisoners during the 1837 Rebellions. Both men were haunted by circumstances in their personal lives: Baldwin became a widower at a young age and LaFontaine’s first marriage was childless. They both poured their energies into politics.

19th century Canadian history has a reputation for being calm and uneventful but John Ralston Saul provides a vivid account of the conflicts of times. As a child, Baldwin fled the burning of what is now Toronto by American troops during the war of 1812. The Rebellions of 1837 cost lives in both Upper and Lower Canada and a few of the rocks thrown at Governor General Lord Elgin at the time of the burning of parliament in Montreal in 1849 are still in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Ralston Saul also places events in Canada in a wider trans-Atlantic context, examining the impact of the European political upheavals of 1848 and the emigration following the Irish Potato Famine on Canadian politics and society. Highly recommended.

#201 of 365 Lester B Pearson by Andrew Cohen

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 23, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home, Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review:  I enjoyed this short biography of Lester B. Pearson, who was Prime Minister of Canada at the time of the centennial of Confederation in 1967. Cohen observes that in contrast to other famous Canadian Prime Ministers such as John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, Lester Pearson did not have a vision of himself as a “great man” destined to become Prime Minister but instead seized the career opportunities that came to him, reflecting, “I expected to spend at least the next quarter century teaching history…with forays into related activities. I knew that I would never become a cloistered scholar,but I did not know where one of these forays was to lead me.”

In addition to discussing Pearson’s life and accomplishments, the book also provides an overview of the development of Canadian nationhood over the course of the 20th century. Pearson had a sense of a Canadian identity distinct from Great Britain and the United States from a young age and his accomplishments as Prime Minister included the introduction of the current Canadian flag and the promotion of bilingualism. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Suez Crisis, the first example of Canada not joining Great Britain in war. I would have been interested to read more about Pearson’s views of the monarchy as there are references in the book to the “Royal” slowly disappearing from a number of Canadian institutions. A well written and interesting biography and work of Canadian history.

#202 of 365 Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont by Joseph Boyden

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 28, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 224 pages

Review: A vivid dual biography of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel that centres around the North-West Rebellion of 1885 from the perspective of Dumont then the trial of Louis Riel. I have visited Duck Lake and Batoche in Saskatchewan and could picture the setting. While Boyden focuses closely on the experiences and worldview of these two Metis leaders, the book also discusses the wider impact of the Red River and North-West Rebellions on the development of Canada and the history of warfare. While Dumont comes to life on the pages of the book, the various facets of Riel’s character do not always come to the surface as Boyden focuses closely on his religious views and quotes extensively from his discussions on this subject. I was curious to know more about his early life, upbringing and time in exile between rebellions. A fascinating read.

#203 of 365 Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe

Genre: Biography

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

Review:  A beautifully written literary biography that captures the eloquence and statesmanship of the Cree Chief Big Bear and the challenges faced by First Nations people in the late 19th century. Wiebe draws upon a variety of sources, including interviews by Big Bear’s descendants, to describe his efforts to reach a peaceful agreement with the Canadian authorities and provide for his people. The final chapters of the book are tragic. Big Bear and his family experienced starvation and poverty, and the Chief was blamed for attacks on settlers that he in fact attempted to prevent. Wiebe concludes that Big Bear still has a lasting impact on Canadian culture, stating, “His insistence on talking to resolve conflict would become the Canadian way. They had, after all, named the whole country Canada, which sounded very much like the Cree word kanata, meaning ‘the place that is clean.'” Well worth reading.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Travel Literature

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 28: Travel Literature: My summer reading this year includes travel literature (reviewed below), the Extraordinary Canadians biography series (to be reviewed in the next few days) and history books about Queens and Empresses (to be reviewed next week). I have taken an expansive definition of “Travel Literature” to include a book about what it would like to live in Tudor times, a richly descriptive novel about cooking in different countries and an unsettling novel set in rural Yorkshire. Otherwise, I read books about road trips, long hikes, passports and train journeys, some from the 1980s and some more recent. Here are this week’s reviews:

#190 of 365 Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 14-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 55 minutes

Review: A travelogue with some interesting chapters and compelling descriptions but not the humour of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, which has a similar premise. William Least Heat-Moon drove around the United States, avoiding the interstate highways to visit remote small towns such as “Nameless” and “Frenchman’s Station” and interesting characters including the residents of a trappist monastery in Georgia who vote on books to be read aloud at mealtimes. They had just finished Nicholas and Alexandra when the author visited them.
The book was written in 1982 but some of the concerns expressed by inhabitants of rural America, such as declining job prospects remain topical today. The author was going through a difficult period in his life when he wrote the book and both the author and the audiobook narrator have a crotchety tone that sometimes suits the material but eventually becomes repetitive. An interesting but overly long work of travel literature.

#191 of 365 How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman

Genre: Social History

Date Read: July 18, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Review:A fascinating study of daily life in Tudor times. While modern popular culture focuses on life at the court of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, Ruth Goodman reconstructs a day in the life for people from a variety of social classes from waking up at four in the morning to milk the cows to sleeping on your right side for health reasons at night. She examines Tudor fashions for all occasions (from ploughing the fields to searching for the northwest passage), the daily chores required to run a Tudor farm or shop, and the variety of leisure pursuits from archery to dancing. What makes the book stand out is the author has tried a variety of Tudor pursuits herself including cheesemaking, sleeping on floor rushes and dancing the volta. She even bravely tried the various levels of Tudor personal hygiene and describes the results in the book. An informative and entertaining read.

#192 of 365 AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 34 minutes

Review: I was expecting a memoir in the tradition of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson or Wild by Cheryl Strayed but AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is more of a travel log, listing distances and foot injuries in repetitive detail. The author is more interested in the various aspects of thru-hiker culture including shelters, nicknames, hitchhiking into town and finding food rather than the landscapes and histories of the different regions of the trail. There is little humour, even in the conversations with interesting characters the author met along the trail. The book provides a good overview of the hiking experience for anyone interested in hiking the Appalachain Trail from end to end but does not provide enough context for general readers looking for a sense of the landscape. The audiobook is read in a cheerless monotone.

#193 of 365 Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Genre: Fiction

Date Listened: July 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 37 minutes

Review: A beautifully written and deeply unsettling novel about a family living at the margins of society in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Elmet is named for the last Celtic kingdom in England and the central characters live outside modern society until its realities intrude on their isolated existence. Mozley evokes the setting of a Yorkshire thicket where “For a blissful year,there had been a home” as a place of great natural beauty but also an isolated part of the world where terrible things can happen far beyond the reach of the rule of law. The plot is not as compelling as the setting and characters and there are loose ends remaining at the end of the story but the novel was absorbing throughout.

#194 of 365 The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document by Martin Lloyd

Genre: History

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 282 pages

Review: The Passport is filled with interesting facts about the history of travel. Lloyd notes that the Old Testament figure Nehemiah, the Governor of Persian Judea, required travel documents in c. 450 BCE to journey between regions that are now part of Israel and Iraq. France developed an internal passport system that was formalized at the time of the French Revolution while British passports were viewed as courtesy rather than a necessity until the First World War.

Unfortunately, the wealth of knowledge does not come together into a cohesive narrative as facts related to one another, such as League of Nations passports for refugees and the United Nations documents that replaced them, are discussed in completely different sections of the book. As the subtitle suggests, there are only passing references to the unique experiences of women travelers over the centuries. Lloyd mentions that married women were listed on the passports of their husbands in the early 20th century but does not analyse the implications of this practice for women’s mobility or when passports for individual women became widespread.

The book includes illustrations, comparing passports throughout history and around the world. There is even an example of a distinctive royal passport. The content of the book includes many interesting facts that should be better organized and analyzed for readers. The book would also benefit from a stronger conclusion than “I rather like passports.”

#195 of 365 The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Novel by Richard C. Morais 

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: July 23-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 245 pages

Review: A novel that is not quite as good as the film it inspired. Morais provides delicious descriptions of gourmet cuisine and allows readers to picture obscure ingredients such as the Kohlrabi “a bridge between the cabbage and the turnip.” The characters are not as likable in the novel as they are in the film, however, and the novel unfolds over too long a period of time to keep the story-line cohesive from beginning to end. Madame Mallory is suitably imperious when portrayed by Helen Mirren but comes across as just petty and unpleasant in the novel and her mentorship of Hassan appears to be an abrupt change in character. The film also emphasizes that Hassan creates fusion Indian/French cuisine as a restaurateur, while his distinct approach to cooking receives less attention in the novel. I recommend the film over the book.

#196 of 365 The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 353 pages

Review: I have read a number of travelogues written by Americans in Britain and I had high expectations of this one as Theroux is a prolific travel writer. From the beginning, I was disappointed by Theroux’s approach to exploring the United Kingdom. Despite stating that he lived in London for ten years without exploring much of the rest of the country, he decides from the beginning of his travels around the coast, “No sightseeing; no cathedrals, no castles, no churches, no museums. I wanted to examine the particularities of the present.” History is essential to understanding the present and the deliberate exclusion of historic buildings and exhibitions from his travels seems literally shortsighted.

The tone of the book was also disappointing. A travelogue of this kind benefits from an author with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a certain degree of humility in unfamiliar situations. Instead, Theroux takes himself fairly seriously but is relentless critical of “working class” people and “people on the dole” on their holidays and “the lower middle class” proprietors of bed and breakfasts who are not interested in his complaints. He eviscerates “caravan” holidays in Wales as though he has never seen a mobile home in the United States.

The book was written in 1983 and provides a good snapshot of how the big events of 1982, including the Falklands War and the birth of Prince William, were received by the British public. There are some very well written passages and reflections about the nature of travel and changing landscapes. Overall, however, the book would have benefited from more humour and willingness to go sightseeing!

Books I’ve Read This Week: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution

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 27: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution July 17, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family and four members of their household by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg. The centenary of this tragic event has prompted the publication of new books and articles concerning the Romanovs and their legacy.

The two most recent non-fiction works about the Imperial family, To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport examine whether an escape from Russia was possible after Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. Hall discusses the difficulties faced by the whole extended Romanov family while Rappaport focuses closely on Nicholas, Alexandra and their children and the political and logistical difficulties that prevented them from leaving Russia.

A recently published historical novel, The Romanov Empress, focuses on Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the most senior member of the Imperial family to survive the revolution and find refuge in Europe. In the past week, I also read two history books about royal families who faced political upheaval in past centuries as well as a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Japanese annexation of Korea and a history of the Baltic States. Here are this week’s reviews:

#183 of 365 To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

Genre: History

Date Read: July 9-July 12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 306 pages

Acquired: Received a review copy from Amberley Publishing

Review: A fascinating history of what Europe’s royal families did and did not do to help Czar Nicholas II and his extended family after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Most books that examine negotiations concerning a possible rescue of the Romanovs focus narrowly on King George V and the British government. In addition to George V, Hall discusses a diverse array of European monarchs including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who showed a strong interest in the welfare of the Russian Imperial family, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose assistance was rebuffed by his Russian relatives because of the First World War, and King Christian X of Denmark, whose diplomats provided some aid to imprisoned Grand Dukes in 1919. Hall draws upon British and European archival sources as well as the unpublished diaries of Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, who became increasingly outraged by George V’s failure to do more to help Nicholas II.

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I thought the ending could have been stronger, emphasizing all the reasons why there were not more efforts to help the Romanovs, such as the First World War and the poor communications of the time. The book is filled with references to undelivered letters and unsent telegrams that undermined efforts to locate the Romanovs once they were sent to Siberia, let alone develop a viable rescue plan.  Instead, To Free the Romanovs, ends with the loose threads in the negotiations between Russia and various European powers concerning the Romanovs just before the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his immediate family, and the hope that that further information will come to light.

#184 of 365 The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 372 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Date Read: July 13, 2018

Review: A thoroughly researched study of the obstacles to rescuing Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children in 1917 and 1918. Rappaport argues that there was a very narrow window of opportunity for the Imperial family to escape because of the internal political situation within Russia. She includes her own notes on her research process and how she built upon the work of previous authors who have examined the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the Romanovs by Europe’s monarchs.

I found Rappaport’s analysis of the influence of Empress Alexandra’s reputation on attitudes toward rescuing the Romanovs both within Russia and across Europe especially interesting. By 1917, Alexandra had alienated many of her own relatives as well as popular opinion in both the United Kingdom and Russia, and negative attitudes concerning her influence over Nicholas undermined interest her welfare and that of her family.

The book concludes with the former Imperial family’s own views of potential rescue plans. Their reluctance to be separated from one another and to leave Russia means that they would not have supported many of the plans discussed in the book. An engaging and absorbing read, even though the ending is sadly well known.

#185 of 365 The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C. W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: July 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 427 pages

Review: An excellent historical novel from the perspective of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Czar Nicholas II, and sister of King George I of Greece and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom. C. W. Gortner brings Maria, nicknamed Minnie, and her colourful family to life. The scenes with Minnie’s sister-in-law and “friendly rival” Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, nicknamed Miechen, were especially entertaining. Gortner provides a nuanced portrayal of Minnie’s marriage to Czar Alexander III, which was successful in many ways but not without its challenges, and shows her frustrations at becoming increasingly marginalized from major decisions during her son’s reign. I would have liked more scenes set outside of Russia as Minnie was prodigious traveler who spent much of Nicholas II’s reign visiting relatives in England, Denmark and Greece. There were therefore opportunities to show more of Europe’s royal courts in the years leading up to WWI. Otherwise, an enjoyable novel inspired by a historical figure who lived through key events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

#186 of 365 Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone

Genre: History

Date Read: July 15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: An absorbing four generation family saga beginning with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and ending with the accession of George I in 1714. Goldstone describes the reign of James I, the eventful life of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and the adventures of her thirteen children, including four gifted daughters. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, actively campaigned for her family to be acknowledged as the senior line in the British succession and her son George I became the first monarch from the House of Hanover.

Goldstone draws interesting parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Sophia of Hanover in their tireless promotion of their family’s interests. In addition to their political significance, Elizabeth’s daughters were part of the intellectual life of the seventeenth century. Princess Elizabeth, corresponded with Descartes, Louise Hollandine was an accomplished portrait artist and Sophia and her daughter supported the work of Leibniz. I would have been interested to have read more about these intellectual currents. For example, there are passing references to prestigious University of Heidelberg without mention of the nature of the scholarship taking place there at the time. Daughters of the Winter Queen is otherwise a fascinating joint biography about an important branch of the royal family who became the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.

#187 of 365 Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 331 pages

Review: A careful and detailed analysis of lives and deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg Empire and Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Greg King and Penny Wilson examine the myths surrounding the events at Mayerling and the efforts of Emperor Franz Joseph to prevent any further investigation of his son’s death. They present a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened the night that Rudolf and Mary died. King and Wilson also describe the cultural atmosphere of late 19th century Vienna, a city that had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and discuss the tensions within Rudolf’s dysfunctional extended family. They provide an especially sensitive portrayal of Rudolf’s estranged wife, Crown Princess Stephanie, who suspected that Rudolf planned to harm himself and attempted to warn other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The book concludes with an epilogue that discusses the colourful life of Rudolf and Stephanie’s only child, Archduchess Elizabeth and the convent founded on the site of Mayerling where daily prayers are still offered for Rudolf’s soul.

#188 of 365 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 11-July 14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 16 minutes

Review: The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought the reign of the last Korean Emperor, Sunjong, to an end. Pachinko is set in the aftermath of this political upheaval, following four generations of a Korean family who face discrimination and changing fortunes in Japan. The first two thirds of the novel are especially good as the political and economic circumstances of Japan and Korea, especially the Depression and Second World War, inform the conditions faced by the central characters. The atmosphere at the boarding house in Korea and in the Korean district of Osaka, Japan, as well as the pervasive obstacles faced by the characters as Koreans in Japan are presented in a compelling fashion.

The narrative begins to the lose momentum once Noa discovers some hidden truths about his family’s history. During the later chapters, there are too many jumps in the chronology and too many digressions concerning minor characters and their love lives. The novel is at its best when its focused on the central characters and their challenges within the wider context of Korean and Japanese history.

#189 of 365 A History of the Baltic States by Andres Kasekamp

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 251 pages

Review: A good overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from prehistoric times to the present. More than half of the book is devoted to the 20th century but the major events and historical figures from earlier centuries are also discussed in some detail. I found the analysis of the influence of Baltic Germans on Imperial Russian history especially interesting. Kasekamp notes that “From Peter the Great until the demise of the monarchy in 1917, an astonishingly high proportion (one-eighth) of individuals who served in the top echelons of the Imperial administration were of Baltic German origin” with Baltic influence especially pronounced during the reigns of Peter the Great’s consort and successor Catherine I (who was raised in what is now Latvia) and his niece, Anna. The book includes detailed maps, a chronology of events, and an extensive further reading section organized by time period and theme.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

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 25: Vacation Reading  I was on vacation this past week and beach days naturally require beach reads! I like to read (or listen to) vintage historical fiction on vacation and find books at local book sales to add to my collection. Here are this week’s reviews:

#169 of 365 Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Kay Penman

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

Review: The second novel in Sharon Kay Penman’s medieval mystery series. I prefer Penman’s longer novels based on historical figures, especially the Welsh trilogy, but her medieval mysteries are enjoyable to read and make good use of the 12th century English setting. In the first novel, The Queen’s Man, written documents emerged as clues, creating complications in a society with widespread illiteracy. In Cruel as the Grave, switching language back and forth from Norman French (the language of the court) to English (the language of ordinary people) becomes a means of preventing conversations from being understood and overheard.

Justin de Quincy’s role as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s secret agent is overshadowed in Cruel as the Grave (except when he is sneaking into Windsor Castle to deliver clandestine messages) by his involvement in a tragic murder mystery involving prosperous merchant families and a Welsh peddler’s daughter. The mystery unfolds step by step until the final pages but the conclusion is not entirely surprising. Just the same, I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: The historical novels of Jean Plaidy (another one of her pen names was Victoria Holt) are always enjoyable vacation reads, informed by primary sources and filled with period details, engaging dialogue and memorable characters. My Enemy the Queen examines the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys as they were both attracted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. None of the major characters are especially likable – Robert Dudley is portrayed as charismatic but dangerous, Elizabeth I is vain and self centered and Lettice is impulsive and governed by her passions. The novel is nevertheless a page turner and especially enjoyable for readers who have also read Margaret George’s recent novel about Elizabeth and Lettice.

#171 of 365 La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

Review: I love Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and enjoy his Scottish novels but I did not find his foray into historical fiction, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, to be as compelling as his other books. There are some interesting philosophical passages about the Second World War and a nice message about daily life and small pleasures continuing to take place in difficult times but there was little of the subtle humor that appears in other McCall Smith novels.

The characters also failed to come to life and seemed similar to those in other McCall Smith novels. La contemplates the meaning of education and her career prospects as a woman, similar to the heroine of The Forever Girl, and her husband is a wine merchant, one of the short lived career ambitions of Bruce from the 44 Scotland Street series. A breezy read but not as good as McCall Smith’s other novels.

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

Review: An epic historical novel that encompasses Poland as the battleground of Europe from the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century to the Soviet backed Polish People’s Republic in the 20th century. Michener includes aspects of Polish culture including pierogies and the mazurka as well as the horsemanship of the landed elites. Michener places three fictional families at the centre of historical events: the aristocratic Lubonskis, the petty gentry Bukowskis and the peasant Buks.

In the early chapters, the different generations of each family remain relatively unchanged but the characters come into focus as distinct individuals in the late 19th century as the Buks discover an opportunity to become small landowners themselves then all of the families experience the horrors of the Second World War. I disagreed with a few of the narrator’s statements, including an exceptionally negative assessment of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, but otherwise enjoyed the novel.

#173 of 365 The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, read by Meryl Streep

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: A beautiful short historical novel from the perspective of Mary during the early years of Christianity. Toibin imagines Mary as an elderly woman reminiscing about her son and frustrating the writers of the Gospels with her complicated perspective on her son’s miracles and crucifixion. The audiobook is a stellar performance by Meryl Streep, which presents the novel as an extended monologue by a revered elder who is eager to unravel her own story from the emerging New Testament. Highly recommended.

#174 of 365 The Iliad: The Fitzgerald Translation by Dan Stevens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

Review: I have read The Odyssey on a few occasions but this is the first time I have experienced The Iliad from start to finish. The Iliad is filled with impressive speeches and vivid battle scenes. The conversations between Hector and his wife Andromache are quite touching. Of the two works attributed to the Homer, however, I prefer The Odyssey as Odysseus has a wide variety of adventures on his journey home while the battle scenes at the Siege of Troy, and the cycle of feasting and fighting, grow repetitive over the course of The Iliad.

As epic poetry, The Iliad suits the audiobook format. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey) reads with enthusiasm but a little too quickly as the connections between the characters are important to the story and it is important that listeners do not miss them. The Robert Fitzgerald translation is excellent and brings the story to life.

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

Review: An absorbing beach read. Beatrice Lacey, an eighteenth century gentlewoman who resembles Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Ashton from John Jakes’ North and South, is obsessed with controlling her family’s Wideacre estate and ruins the lives of everyone in the novel, including herself, in order to do so. The plot is completely over the top but Gregory has written the novel as a page turner, with a looming threat just beyond the boundaries of the estate that maintains the momentum of the story to the very end. There are some plotlines specific to the 18th century, such as the enclosure of common lands on landed estates, but otherwise, this is a historical novel that could have been set in a variety of time periods as the focus is on the scandalous behaviour at Wideacre rather than the wider world.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Power

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 24: Women and Power In recent days, I have been reading books about powerful women or women who challenged the power structures of their times. My reading list includes a historical novel, an extended essay that compares attitudes toward women in public life in classical and modern times, the diary of Marie Antoinette’s sister, a history of Parisian women during the Second World War, and three biographies of women who helped to change the course of history. Here are this week’s reviews:

#162 of 365 In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 25 minutes

Date Listened: June 27-28, 2018

Review:  I saw the film In The Time of Butterflies (starring Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabel and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 t0 1938 and 1942 to 1952) some years ago. Although the film has an excellent cast, the novel is much better because it focuses on all four Mirabel sisters, beginning with the sole survivor of the four, and rotating the perspective among Patria, Mirabel, Dede and Maria Teresa. They were all affected by the Trujillo regime and engaged with the revolutionary movements of the times in different ways.

The novel also highlights the attitudes toward women on the island in the 1950s and 1960s as the Mirabel sisters were the first generation in their family to receive a formal education, which provided them with increased opportunities. The sisters also balanced their political activism with the expectations that they faced as wives and mothers. I would have been interested to read more about about the wider historical and political context for the events in the Dominican Republic shown in the novel. Overall, however, In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent read.

#163 of 365 Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 27, 2018

Review: A well researched history of Parisian women’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War. Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, emphasizes the difficult choices that individual women made in occupied Paris as well as the evolution of women’s roles in French society as a result of the war. In the 1930s, French women did not have the vote, were barred from certain professions and often did not have access to bank accounts. In common with many other European countries, the war transformed women’s lives and equal rights were enshrined in French law by the late 1940s.

There is also a strong focus on female support networks both within Paris and in concentration camps. Sebba structures the book chronologically and therefore moves quickly between different themes and life stories. A thematic structure or a series of short biographies might have brought together the wide range of fascinating historical detail in a more cohesive fashion. Overall, however, Les Parisiennes provides a vivid account of women’s lives in wartime Paris, describing the atmosphere of occupation then liberation.

#164 of 365 The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court by Cinzia Recca

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 422 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: June 26-28, 2018

Review: A translation and scholarly analysis of the 1781-1785 diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire and elder sister of Marie Antoinette. The first hundred pages of the book are comprised of discussion of key themes in the diary followed by notes on the diary’s structure and translation methods. The remainder of the book is the translation of the diary.

Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette were close in age and shared a governess during their childhoods. Maria Carolina’s reveals just how much they had in common. Both queens displayed warmth and affection to the most important people in their lives. (Maria Carolina hugged her brother Joseph II when he visited her) and were attentive and involved mothers concerned with the education of their children. Maria Carolina was especially concerned with her children’s health, a frequent theme in the journal. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette both expected to exert political influence as well, and suffered from bad press both within their own lifetimes and in subsequent histories. The diary is a fascinating account of a late eighteenth century queen’s daily activities, public engagements and personality and brings Marie Antoinette’s lesser known sister out of comparative obscurity.

#165 of 365 Joan Of Arc: A History by Helen Castor

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 328 pages

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Review: A beautifully written and well researched history of the impact of Joan of Arc on the course of French history. Castor places Joan in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and English, French and Burgundian court politics in the fifteenth century. The book illuminates Joan’s own frustration that she could only achieve what she perceived to be her divinely inspired goals by persuading influential political and military figuresto work with her. The motives of the major historical figures of the times are explored in detail.

Perceptions of divine intervention during Joan’s lifetime are another key theme in the book as Joan was not the only person who claimed to be on a holy mission to change the course of the war. There was even a Joan of Arc impersonator who was recognized by two of her brothers after her death. Throughout the narrative, Castor emphasizes Joan’s ability to divide popular opinion both during her own lifetime and after her death. The sources of her inspiration, her military leadership and her insistence on wearing men’s clothes inspired widespread controversy and the chapters concerning her trial highlight the political, religious and gender debates of her times. The book concludes with a epilogue regarding Joan’s 20th century canonization. A fascinating read.

#166 of 365 Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Genre: Political Science/Classical History

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Acquired: Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 129 pages

Review: Women and Power: A Manifesto discusses how classical Greek and Roman attitudes concerning public speaking and rhetoric as masculine attributes continue to undermine the position of women in the public sphere. Beard, a renowned classicist, expertly blends negative depictions of women in public life in classical drama with the harsh criticism faced by female public figures in the present day. (Hilary Clinton has literally been depicted as Medusa).

The book provides a nuanced analysis of popular perceptions of women speaking in public, including the assumption that female politicians will focus on policies perceived as “women’s issues,” the struggle for women to be taken seriously in traditionally male dominated realms and “the right to be wrong” as women in public life are often held to a much higher standard than men in the same roles. The book is well illustrated with both classical and modern images of women being silenced in the public realm. Highly recommended.

#167 of 365 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 52 minutes

Dates Listened: June 28-July 1, 2018

Review: A fascinating biography of a historical figure who, along with her family, deserves to be better known. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and raised in Britain, with Queen Victoria as her godmother. Her father presented the Koh-I-Noor diamond to the Queen.

Sophia became a prominent British socialite, helping to set trends for cycling, dog breeding and field hockey as pursuits for fashionable young women. After visiting India, however, she developed a strong interest in philanthropy (especially the welfare of Indian soldiers and sailors), Indian nationalism and, after her return to Britain, women’s suffrage. Sophia was among the suffragettes who demonstrated on Black Friday in 1910 when hundreds of British suffragettes were attacked by police and bystanders.

In addition to Sophia’s life story, author Anita Anand also discusses the connections between the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi admired the activism of British suffragettes and studied their tactics. Sophia’s family also receives extensive attention as her parents and siblings also had interesting lives shaped by British rule over India.

The Duleep Singh family associated with many of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Sophia’s brother Victor was a close friend of Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Sophia herself worked closely with the suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst. Sophia’s social circle also included suffragettes who are little known today but were influential in their times.

One of my favourite royal biographies of the year. Highly recommended.

#168 of 365 Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 33 minutes

Dates Listened: July 3-5, 2018

Review:  An insightful biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that places her within the context of her family, Chicago, the experiences of African-Americans in the United States, press coverage of the Obama family in the White House, and the expectations faced by American First Ladies from Martha Washington to the present day. Journalist and author Peter Slevin, who covered the Obama White House extensively, focuses on Michelle Obama’s accomplishments including her Ivy league degrees, professional achievements and her initiatives as First Lady, including her efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise and her advocacy for military families.

There are mentions of how Michelle Obama had to compromise her own professional ambitions in support of her husband’s political career and presidency and it would have been interesting for Slevin to have analyzed these decisions in more detail. The audiobook is well read by Robin Miles. Highly recommended.