Books I’ve Read This Week: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

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 43: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II In recent weeks, I have been reading new perspectives on the lives and reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, a novel about Queen Elizabeth II, three volumes of scholarly articles about 19th and 20th century British and European royalty and a new history the United Kingdom in the 19th century. Here are this week’s reviews:

#295 of 365 Queen of the World: Elizabeth II: Sovereign and Stateswoman by Robert Hardman

Genre: Biography

Date Read: October 29-30, 2018

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 578 pages

Review: The best royal biography of the year! Most books about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign focus on her life and reign within the United Kingdom but Queen of the World examines her role as Head of the Commonwealth and sovereign of sixteen Commonwealth realms, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hardman provides fascinating behind-the-scenes descriptions and analysis of royal tours and state visits as well as subtle examples of royal diplomacy, especially within the context of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

The various aspects of royal travels including unique gifts, fashion choices, menus and itineraries are explained in detail. There is a section devoted to the role of the Royal Yacht Britannia in royal diplomacy before the ship was decomissioned in the 1990s. Queen of the World includes interviews with numerous ambassadors, diplomats and members of the royal household as well as Princess Anne, the Countess of Wessex and Andrew Parker Bowles. Over the course of the book, Hardman addresses some of the inaccuracies in The Crown series on Netflix, including the circumstances surrounding the Queen’s historic 1961 visit to Ghana.

Hardman places Commonwealth history within the context of current events concerning the monarchy and Commonwealth. Queen of the World begins with the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, which confirmed that the Prince of Wales will succeed the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and concludes with the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, who included floral emblems from the Commonwealth nations in the design of her wedding veil. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the global significance of the monarchy and the Queen’s role in international diplomacy.

#296 of 365 The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

Genre: History

Dates Read: October 28-29, 2018

Acquired: Received as a gift

Format: Paperback, 390 pages

Review: A culinary biography of Queen Victoria and a history of attitudes toward food, cooking and dining in the Victorian era. Victoria was an enthusiastic and adventurous eater who who sampled bird’s nest soup in 1884 and an ostrich egg omelette in 1899. There are fascinating descriptions of the Queen as a culinary tourist, tasting bouillabaisse in the French riviera and seeking out local delicacies on private visits to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Victoria’s daily meals, which generally featured lamb chops or mutton, are compared to the more elaborate meals served at state dinners.

Queen Victoria’s weight fluctuated over the course of her reign, declining during her adolescence, increasing in her early years as Queen, declining again during her marriage to Prince Albert then increasing rapidly during her widowhood. I would have been interested to read more about the impact of the British Empire on the Queen’s meals. There are references to her enthusiasm for Indian curry dishes and assurances by importers of preserved meats from Australia and New Zealand that their products did not contain kangaroo but there is no discussion of Canadian wheat, bacon and fish, which were all exported to Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. The book includes recipes for a variety of dishes enjoyed by the Queen including pancakes with marmalade and royal haggis. A delicious read with a fresh perspective on Queen Victoria.

#297 of 365 The Autobiography of the Queen by Emma Tennant

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: October 25-26, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Harcover, 218 pages

Review: An interesting premise for a novel: Queen Elizabeth II departs for Windsor Village, St. Lucia incognito as Mrs. Gloria Smith to write her autobiography. There are a few fun details imagining the Queen flying economy class or checking in at the aiport, in contrast to the formal circumstances of her official overseas tours. Unfortunately, the novel is consistently written in the tone of an outsider curious about and mildly critical of the monarchy rather than the Queen herself. There is a lot of time devoted to the contents of the Queen’s handbag and what the corgis might do if the Queen was not there to walk them on their usual schedule.

The references to the Queen’s German ancestry and detachment from the day to day lives of regular people sound as though they were written in a critical opinion column about the monarchy rather than how the Queen would muse about her own circumstances. Some of the speculation about the Queen’s opinions is dated as the novel was published in 2007. The plot twist concerning a pretender to the throne ignores the existence of The Royal Marriages Act. For better historical fiction about the Queen, I recommend Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn and An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

#298 of 365 Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 293 pages

Review: A well researched and insighful collection of scholarly articles concerning the role of heirs to the throne in 19th century monarchies. The editors observe that the 19th century saw the expansion of the institution of monarchy in Europe as newly independent countries such as Greece, Norway, Belgium and Bulgaria adopted monarchical government. At the same time, the spread of photography and the popular press allowed for greater scrutiny of royal dynasties as families. There were increased expectations that the lives of royalty would bear some resemblance to the lives of their elite and middle class subjects instead of other royalty alone.

Numerous articles in this collection focus on the popular view in 19th century Europe that royal weddings should follow a romantic attachment between the bride and groom and that the royal domestic sphere should allow for relaxed and informal interactions between royal parents and children. The popular perceptions of royalty developed in the 19th century continue to influence attitudes toward royal family life in the 21st century. Although the focus of the book is the 19th century, there are some fascinating articles about perceptions of royal heirs during the First World War as the future Edward VIII became extremely popular because of his military service (even though his position precluded a combat role) while Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm was satirized across Europe as “Little Willy” because of his self indulgence during the war.

The focus of the book is Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Britain with individual articles concerning Belgium, Spain and Demark. The inclusion of articles concerning the role of the heir to the throne in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states would have enhanced the collection. The examination of popular perceptions of 19th century female heirs such as the future Queen Victoria or Queen Wilhelmina would have also been of interest. I look forward to reading future volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series!

#299 of 365 Royal Heirs and the Uses of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 325 pages

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the royal image from the early 19th century until the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947. The editors observe that royalty needed to find new methods of maintaining public support during this period including presenting their family life to the public through photographs and public appearances. In common with Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europethe topics addressed in this volume remain relevant to public perceptions of royalty in the 21st century including attitudes toward royal tours, fashions, wedding and childrearing as well as royal involvement in the Olympic Games.

There are some fascinating chapters about royalty whose relationship with the public is less known today including King Oscar II of Sweden’s efforts to cultivate a Norweigian identity during his visits to Norway and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s objections to royalty being concerned with their public image. There are detailed chapters devoted to 19th and early 20th century royal tours of the United States and India. The volume is informative and interesting for both scholars and general readers.

#300 of 365 Monarchies and the Great War edited by Matthew Glencross and Judith Rowbotham

Date Read: November 11, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 336 pages

Review: An informative, original and insightful collection of scholarly articles concerning the impact of the First World War on European monarchies. Matthew Glencross notes in the introduction that studies of royalty between 1914 to 1918 often focus on the personalities of individual monarchs involved in the conflict rather than the wider political and ceremonial aspects of monarchical government. Monarchies and the Great War examines this wider context in addition to the individual kings and queens who reigned during the hostilities.

The book includes an analysis of the role of royalty in Anglo-American relations from the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War, discussing the importance of a frequent royal presence in Canada to royal engagement with the United States. There are detailed chapters devoted to the wartime activities of King George V and Queen Mary as well as the political agenda of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary in addition to chapters concerning monarchies at war in Belgium, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Japan.

Although Czar Nicholas II’s ill fated role as Commander and Chief of the Russian Army from 1915 to 1917 is discussed in the introduction, there are no chapters devoted to the Romanovs, a surprising omission considering that the other prominent European monarchies of the First World War each receive at least one chapter. Judith Rowbotham’s analysis of Queen Mary’s war work is excellent and the inclusion of more articles concerning European royal women’s roles during the First World War would have enhanced the book.

Monarchies and the Great War is an engaging and topical read for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I hope that there will be further volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series that continue to explore this fascinating subject as there is still much research to be done concerning European monarchies in wartime.

#301 of 365 Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) by David Cannadine

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 602 pages

Review: A masterful political history of 19th century Great Britain and Ireland with a strong focus on the Westminster System and party politics as well as the changing role of the monarch over time. Histories of 19th century Britain often begin with Congress of Vienna and extend to the outbreak of the First World War but Victorious Century begins with the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and integrates Irish history into the narrative. While the focus of the book is political developments, Cannadine (the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), also weaves cultural history into the narrative, discussing the work of authors from Jane Austen to HG Wells. Social history receives less attention but the final chapters contain an extended analysis of how daily life in the United Kingdom changed over the course of the century. Events in the wider British Empire and Dominions are mentioned throughout the book but do not receive the same attention as politics within Great Britain and Ireland.

In terms of royal history, Cannadine notes that the 19th century was a period of gradual evolution from a monarchy able to influence political events in the manner of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert early in Queen Victoria’s reign to the more ceremonial role of the elderly Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. He also observes that successive monarchs misread the political and religious situation in Ireland. King George III opposed Catholic emancipation and Queen Victoria was hostile to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule. Not until King George V did a monarch observe that Irish Home Rule in the 19th century would have been a wise policy.

Cannadine admires Prince Albert, arguing that “no member of the British royal family since has made so many-sided a contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of the United Kingdom” and there is a chapter devoted to the Great Exhibition of 1851. In contrast, Cannadine is dismissive of King George III’s “delinquent sons” and argues that the Duke of Kent did not make any notable contribution besides fathering Queen Victoria, a claim disputed by the Duke’s recent biographers. I would have been interested to read more of Cannadine’s thoughts about Queen Victoria’s changing political views over the course of her reign. Overall, however, Victorious Century is an authoritative and engaging history of the 19th century United Kingdom, especially for readers interested in the political figures and developments of the time.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction

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 41: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction In between books about history and royalty this past month, I have read some historical fiction set in the classical world. The novels include an epic saga of Israel’s history from the stone age to the 1960s, the fictional autobiography of a Roman Emperor, the perspectives of Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters and three novels inspired by characters in the The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Here are this week’s reviews:

#281 of 365 The Source by James Michener

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 54 hours and 32 minutes

Dates Listened: September 24-October 4, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An epic historical novel that follows the history of Israel from prehistoric times until the 1960s. The structure of the novel follows the fourteen layers of an archeological dig and the stories behind the artifacts found there. The role of Judaism in structuring society over the centuries and the successive waves of military conflict and displacement in the region are dramatized in detail. While the setting comes alive in the novel, the characterization is sometimes repetitive. The novel contains many examples of men who do not feel that they fit into their society and their long suffering but loyal wives. Since the book was published in 1965, some material and perspectives are rather dated. The audiobook narrator reads very slowly and clearly and it’s therefore possible to listen at 1.25 times the usual audiobook speed and still enjoy the story at a reasonable pace.

#282 of 365 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 15 minutes

Review:  A beautiful and moving Iliad inspired novel from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’s closest companion. The love story in the midst of the Trojan war is well developed. The characters are engaging including the clever Odysseus and the resourceful Briseis, who develops a close friendship with Patroclus. There is a good balance between myth and magical realism with goddesses and centaurs woven into the fabric of everyday life in Greece and Troy. The audiobook is well read, especially the rasping voice of Achilles’s mother. Highly recommended!

#283 of 365 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 9-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 47 minutes

Review: Classic historical fiction written in the form of Emperor Claudius’s memoirs of his path to the throne. Claudius is a charming, engaging narrator, conscious that he is writing for posterity. His childhood health problems, including a limp and speech impediment, result in him being underestimated by his family, especially his formidable grandmother Livia. Claudius receives advice that the perception that he is not a viable potential Emperor might keep him safe during periods of palace intrigue and he carefully navigates the conflicts within his extended family.

In contrast to his ambitious relatives, Claudius is more interested in scholarly pursuits such researching and writing history even in face of scepticism about his abilities and doubts that his work will ever be read. This historical perspective allows more background information about Claudius’s extended family that would be expected in a straightforward fictional memoir. I, Claudius is best enjoyed with Claudius’s family tree close at hand as there is an enormous cast of characters connected to one another through complicated geneologies and marriages.

#284 of 365 The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 18, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 199 pages

Review: The first page or two of this novel were underwhelming for me. I could not imagine Penelope using the word “factoids” or explaining her life story after her death, thousands of years after the events of The Odyssey. Once I finished the first chapter, however, I found the book difficult to put down. Atwood’s retelling of the life of Penelope and her twelve doomed maids is original, tragic and darkly funny. The characters come to life including Helen of Troy (“Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?”) and Telemachus (“I’m sorry to say he was quite spoiled.”) I also liked the blend of different writing styles that brought the maids to life before their untimely deaths. Highly recommended.

#285 of 365 Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: October 17-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 342 pages

Review:  An absorbing novel about Queen Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters Berenice and Arsinoe and the decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The perspective alternates between Berenice, who supplants her father as ruler and is determined to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, and her half sister Arsinoe who is the overlooked middle child, ignored during the struggles for power within her family. There is a strong focus on the challenges faced by women of all social backgrounds at the time, including queens. The novel ends fairly abruptly and I look forward to reading the next book in the Fall of Egypt series, The Drowning King.

#286 of 365 Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 24, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 279 pages

Review: A historical novel inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid told from the perspective of Lavinia, the last wife of Aeneas and ancestor of the Romans. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is barely mentioned and is certainly overshadowed by other female characters such as Queen Dido of Carthage. In Le Guin’s novel, Lavinia is depicted as both a fully realized figure of great political significance in the prehistoric world of “the Latins” and a literary creation who speaks with the spectre of the future poet Virgil. Lavinia believes that the Aeneid ended too abruptly and that if Virgil had lived longer and continued the epic, her true deeds and character would have become well known. Lavinia is an engaging narrator and the writing is richly detailed but the plot sometimes moves slowly. Well written but not necessarily a page turner.

BBC History Magazine Article: 8 unconventional royal wedding dresses in history

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the time of their wedding in 1937.

My latest article in the BBC History Magazine is about unconventional royal wedding dresses from Marie Antoinette to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. I discuss how wedding dresses at first considered unique or noteworthy set trends for future royal brides or contributed to the history of fashion.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“For centuries, royal women were married in sumptuous garments and glittering jewels intended to announce the bride’s wealth and status rather than reflect her own personal taste. But from the 18th century onwards, royal wedding dresses began to display more personal touches, some of which became traditions for future royal brides. As speculation mounts over the style and design of Princess Eugenie’s wedding dress when she marries wine merchant Jack Brooksbank on 12 October, historian Carolyn Harris reveals eight royal wedding dresses that were considered unusual, unconventional or innovative in their time…”

Click here to read “8 unconventional royal wedding dresses in history” in the BBC History Magazine

 

Books I’ve Read This Week: The House of Windsor

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 37: The House of Windsor In recent weeks, I have read numerous books about the modern royal family including innovative new biographies of two of the most controversial members of the royal family in the 20th century: King Edward VIII and Princess Margaret. I also read a novel inspired by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, scholarly studies of broader themes in the history of the monarchy such as the establishment of the House of Windsor and royal last wills and testaments, a history of Anglo-Russian royal visits during the reign of Czar Nicholas II and a Canadian perspective on the Queen Mother. Here are this week’s reviews:

#253 of 365 Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell

Date Read: October 1, 2018

Genre: History/Biography

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Hardcover, 322 pages

Review: A fresh perspective on King Edward VIII that examines the impact of American society and culture on his life and brief reign. The book includes excellent analysis of British vs. American press coverage of Edward’s activities as Prince of Wales, which remains relevant to present day royal coverage. There are also insightful conclusions concerning Edward’s inner turmoil and the increasing conflict between his public and private lives during his years as Prince of Wales, which eventually culminated in the abdication crisis once he succeeded to the throne in 1936.

The subtitle of the book, An American Life, however, does not quite capture the complexity of the material. The early chapters are more focused on Canada including his popular 1919 Canadian tour and his purchase of a ranch in Alberta. There are numerous instances of Edward describing his affinity to Canada rather than the United States quoted in the book. Edward’s public role was different in Canada than in the United States and there are also cultural differences. A little more analysis of Edward’s shift from an identification with Canadians to a more American social circle would have enhanced the book.

Edward’s visits to the United States after the abdication crisis are passed over quickly and I would have been interested to read more about this period of Edward’s life, including his term as Governor of the Bahamas. Edward VIII: An American Life is a thought provoking read that might have been better titled “King Edward VIII Abroad” as it goes beyond the United States to place Edward in the context of popular opinion in the wider British Empire and Dominions in the 1920s and 1930s.

#254 of 365 Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Genre: Biography

Date Listened: September 12-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 23 minutes

Review: A biography of Princess Margaret assembled from more than 99 perspectives on her life from the Home Secretary who witnessed her arrival at Glamis Castle in 1930 to the Christie’s auction catalog of her possessions at the time of her death in 2002. In between, Margaret struggled to find a satisfying public role, decided not to marry the divorced Peter Townsend amidst constitutional controversy, endured a turbulent marriage to Antony Armstong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, spent holidays in Mustique, was asked to leave an event by a Beatle and snubbed Elizabeth Taylor. The anecdotes assembled in the book are entertaining, irreverent and sometimes inappropriate.

Although Margaret burned most of her correspondence, she was mentioned in the memoirs and diaries of numerous prominent figures over the course of the second half of the 20th century and always made an impression. The author draws upon a wide range of sources including his own musings about how her life would have unfolded if she had made a different marriage or become queen instead of her sister. However, there are key perspectives missing. Margaret traveled extensively around the Commonwealth but voices from these tours are limited. The absence of Canadian, Australian or Caribbean sources is notable.

Brown mentions that Margaret loved her children, encouraged them to pursue careers of their choice and that they have successful lives.  Their thoughts concerning their mother are entirely missing from the narrative. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is an engaging, innovative but incomplete portrait of the Princess. The audiobook narrator, Eleanor Bron, manages a full range of British accents from clipped royal tones to the Liverpool voices of the Beatles.

#255 of 365 The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Genre: Fiction

Dates Listened: September 14-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 54 minutes

Review: A fun royal romance inspired by William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While the characters are fictional, the authors have clearly researched the ambiance of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace as well as the intense public scrutiny faced by the royal family and their social circle. At the centre of the novel is what happens when a regular person used to a private life becomes involved in a royal romance and is suddenly being literally chased through London by paparazzi. The authors have great fun with the way royal rumours circulate in the press. For example, “Some people swear Nicholas has a wooden leg and that’s why he never plays polo anymore.” The novel is filled with entertaining details satirizing the British upper classes. The couple’s Oxford classmate Penelope six names gets married and becomes Penelope eight names!

I especially enjoyed the royal couple’s group of university friends who do their best to form a protective bubble around them including Gaz (short for Garamonde, grandson of the man who invented the namesake font) and Joss, whose avant garde fashion designs always attract headlines. Trouble comes when one of these friends decides to make his career as a journalist by publicizing a royal scandal. Freddie (based on Prince Harry) is always charming and mischievous and finds himself at the centre of a few royal scandals of his own. A very entertaining novel that is especially enjoyable for readers who follow royal news!

#256 of 365 The Windsor Dynasty 1910 to the Present: ‘Long to Reign Over Us’? edited by  Matthew GlencrossJudith Rowbotham and Michael D. Kandiah

Date Read: September 19, 2018

Genre: History and Politics

 Format: E-Book, 299 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto 

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the enduring survival of the House of Windsor from the accession of King George V to the present day, a period that saw the overthrow of numerous other European monarchies. The contributors argue that the British monarchy should be taken seriously as a political insitution rather than being dismissed as an anachronism or a tourist attraction. The unique qualities that differentiated the Windsor monarchs from their predecessors are emphasized over the course of the book. Both King George V and King George VI were second sons who were educated for naval careers rather than kingship and they approached the role of king as a duty to the nation rather than a personal privilege, an outlook shared by Queen Elizabeth II.

There are numerous chapters concerning the mutually beneficial relationship between the monarchy and the military from the First World War to the careers of Prince William and Prince Harry in the 21st century. The surprisingly recent emergence of opinion polls concerning the popularity of the monarchy is the subject of a fascinating chapter. The constitutional advice received by King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936 also receives a thorough critique. Essential reading for anyone interested in British history and the modern monarchy.

#257 of 365 Imperial Tea Party by Frances Welch

Genre: History

Date Read: September 21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Hardcover, 288 pages

Review: An enjoyable book about the three major Anglo-Russian royal visits during Czar Nicholas II’s reign: Balmoral in 1896, Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) in 1908 and Cowes in 1909. Welch captures the atmosphere of the tours with the heightened security surrounding the presence of the Russian Imperial family in Britain, misunderstandings between Russian and British officials, excited newspaper articles about large royal family gatherings and relations between the individual members of the Russian and British royal houses. The chapters are organized according to the daily itineraries of the visits. There are numerous anecdotes about the Russian Imperial children including Queen Alexandra’s efforts to match her grandson, the future King Edward VIII, with one of Czar Nicholas’s daughters.

The wider political context surrounding these royal visits, however, is summarized quickly and the brief account of George V’s reluctance to provide refuge for the Romanovs in Britain does not take into account the latest books about these complicated circumstances, including Helen Rappaport’s 2018 book The Race to Save the Romanovs. Imperial Tea Party is a good book that could have been even better with more political context and sources.

#258 of 365 The Queen Mother and Her Century by Arthur Bousfield and Garry Toffoli

Date Read: September 25, 2018

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 177 pages

Review:  A Canadian perspective on the Queen Mother, written at the time of her 100th birthday. The book is richly illustrated with photographs and memoribilia from royal tours in addition to formal royal portraits. There are detailed itineraries of the Queen Mother’s Canadian tours, especially her 1939 tour with King George VI, which include the press coverage of the time. The impact of Canada on the royal family’s public image and approach to Commonwealth tours also receives extensive attention. For example, the nickname “Queen Mum” first appeared in print during a 1954 Canadian tour. The book was published in 2000 and is slightly dated today as the Queen Mother’s official biography and selections from her correspondence have been published since then, providing more details concerning her life and travels. Nevertheless, a good overview of the Queen Mother’s relationship with Canada with some rarely seen illustrations.

#259 of 365 Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008 by Michael L. Nash

Dates Read: September 27-30, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 225 pages

Review: A good analysis of key themes in the history of last royal wills and testaments. Nash examines how royal wills were a means of establishing the difference between state and personal property, and expressing preferences concerning the succession. Distinct themes in the history of wills drafted by royal women are also highlighted in the text. Since royal wills have been sealed since 1911, there is little new information concerning modern royal wills beyond observing that the recipients of certain bequests, such as the Burmese ruby bracelet owned by Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, remain unknown. I would have been interested to read more about the structure of early royal wills and how they were drawn up and witnessed. There is some very interesting material in this book but due to restrictions on source material, a complete history of royal wills has yet to be written.

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.