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Archive for March, 2011

I am a history geek.  Most of you know this already.  I was the girl who always read her history textbooks well ahead of classes just because they were interesting.  I still have an uncertain relationship with fiction because of this obsession – while I like novels, I can never get as excited about them as I do about histories or biographies.  And few things excite me more than late-19th Century German history, which is why Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz by John van der Kiste was so very high on my To-Be-Read list.  And it did not disappoint.

At some point in my clearly misguided youth, I developed a bit of an obsession with Vicky, the daughter of and mother to two of Europe’s most unforgettable leaders: Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Her life began so very happily, the eldest member of a close family, the darling of her inspiring father, and her marriage to a man she loved, Crown Prince Frederich of Prussia, a man who viewed her progressive father as a mentor, held all the promise of a happy future.  However, after an early marriage, life in with her husband’s family in Prussia soon proved to be very different to what she had known in England:

Life in Prussia was a shattering shock to the system.  In England she had been the second lady in the land after her mother and sovereign, and as the eldest of nine children a natural leader in the nursery.  A gifted, quick-witted learner with intellectual powers that impressed even her demanding father, she had often been told that she was far cleverer than her backward, stupid, stammering brother Bertie, heir to their mother’s throne.  Now, a conscientious, eager yet immature girl of seventeen, her position had changed overnight.  She had to take her place as the youngest of several princesses, who were almost without exception a dull, vacuous crowd, content to accept their lot as good for childbearing, prepared to fill their time with gossip and dinner parties. (p. 41)

One of the best things about the book is van der Kiste’s liberal use of Vicky’s letters to her mother.  Since Queen Victoria died only a few months before Vicky in 1901, the correspondence is remarkably complete, covering all of the major events and period in Vicky’s life.  The relationship between the two women was also surprisingly intimate, particularly after Vicky became a mother herself, making for fascinatingly detailed and honest letters between them.  Really, who needs fiction when you have material like this?  This does mean that more of the focus is on Vicky and the reactions of her family – Fritz’s dour Prussian family is described dismissively as hostile and unwelcoming, an attitude that does not change as the years pass and on which we receive little further detail or explaination.  I was a little disappointed by that: I read An Uncommon Woman, Hannah Pakula’s biography of Vicky, several years ago and so I already knew quite a lot about her.  What I was hoping for here was more information on Fritz and his family.  While van der Kiste does an excellent job of detailing their relationship, Fritz is definitely the less profiled partner, though it does sound as though he may have paled in comparison to his wife in reality, outshone by her vitality and brilliance.  

The tale of the bright, intelligent Vicky and the beleaguered but hopeful Fritz can hardly be counted as anything other than tragic.  They adored one another and had a very happy marriage but all the other aspects of their lives seemed out of their control (as seems to be the case for most Royals whose parents are gifted with long-life).  Bullied by Fritz’s father, then by Bismarck, and then by their own son, the liberal ideals both Vicky and Fritz so longed to see implemented once Fritz became emperor never came to pass.  By the time Fritz assumed the throne he was already dying of cancer of the larynx; each week of his three month reign saw him growing frailer and frailer.  What strength he had in those last months was partially put towards smuggling his personal papers out of Germany to prevent his son from finding and destroying them (which is exactly what Wilhelm attempted to do, starting only hours after his father’s death).  And we all know what happened when Wilhelm II, heir to his grandfather’s and Bismarck’s nationalist and militaristic aspirations, became emperor and how his actions altered the fate of the western world.  It is endlessly fascinating to ponder what might have been:   

When Wilhelm II is taken out the picture and Frederich III put in his place, the European scene is transformed.  There would almost certainly have been a reconciliation between Germany and France; fragile Russo-German relations, notwithstanding the Battenberg crisis, would have healed and been placed on a firmer footing; and the naval arms race, presided over by Admiral Tirpitz and Wilhelm II with such devastating effect, would surely never have happened.  (p. 260)

I say that I’m interested in Vicky and her relationship with Fritz, and I am, but I’m also fixated on her relationship to her son.  Here was this woman who believed in the promise of the future, in new ideas and in change, in broadening minds and forgetting old grudges, and yet she birthed a son who clung to old hostilities while fostering new ones.  Their relationship was distant from his earliest years but, still, she was his mother.  She was responsible for him and how do you bear that kind of pain and disappointment?  Is that what motherhood can be?  A sentence to spend the rest of your life atoning for bringing a child into the world who changed it for the worse?  Knowing that the world could have been a better place without him in it?  How far, exactly, does maternal love extend, how many sins does it excuse?

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

My parents have fled to warmer climes so I now have the house to myself, which means no pesky interruptions to my reading for things like conversation or socialization.  Moving home has definitely cut into my reading time, in the best possible way, but I am looking forward to having just this one month to revert to my old ways.  I might even get the chance to finally write up the outstanding reviews for all the books I’ve read in February and March!  And I can spend hours at the library with no fear of being teased for it afterwards (anything more than half an hour is grounds for bemused heckling from my nearest and dearest). 

In an unrelated aside, I am running a giveaway this week for one copy of The Orchid Affair by Lauren Willig.  If you’re interested, see the review for details.    

Here’s my loot for the week:

Middlemarch by George Eliot
Three months into 2011 and I’ve yet to read one book for the Victorian Lit challenge – this might be the book I finally start with.  Maybe.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve borrowed it from the library in the last ten years and returned it unread, but I retain hope.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
I have never read anything by Rushdie and honestly know him best through his appearances on “Charlie Rose”.  It was on that show that I first saw him speak about his children’s books Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life.  While I may never feel the need to pick up The Satanic Verses, I am always happy to try a fantastical fable.   

How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton
I’d passed on this several times before reading dovegreyreader’s review of it in February (the comments section of her post is particularly wonderful with lots of readers reminiscing about their own experiences with the Guides).  Since then, I’d been keeping an eye out for it on the shelves and today it appeared! 

 

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
A title that has been on my TBR list for ages. 

In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania by Georgina Harding
Honestly, I don’t have any particularly strong interest in Romania, particularly not Romania circa 1988, but I’m on the lookout for titles for the Eastern European Reading Challenge so, seeing this on the shelf, I thought ‘why not?’

Blackout by Connie Willis
I may not have adored To Say Nothing of the Dog but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading Willis’ most recent time-travel tale.  The library catalogue advises that Blackout’s sequel, All Clear is currently in transit to me, which is perfect as I hear that they are books you want to read as close together as possible.

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This review contains a giveaway.

Sometimes, I just want to be entertained by my reading material.  I don’t want to have to analyse characters or puzzle about ostentatiously clever plots, I just want to be swept away by a story, preferably one filled with adventure, romance, and, in an ideal circumstance, witty dialogue.  When these moods hit, Lauren Willig is my go-to author with her delightful Napoleonic-era Pink Carnation series, happily melding the best of historical adventure novels and modern Chick Lit.  Not necessarily a combination that sounds like it would work but work it does; Willig’s tales of espionage and her ever-expanding network of botanical spies never fail to entertain.  My only regret is how quickly I speed through each new installment – I’m never able to restrain myself enough to savour them, devouring a volume in a single sitting.  This was certainly the case with her most recent offering, The Orchid Affair.

Though much of the first book (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) took place in Paris, it took until this eighth installment in the series to return to the French capital.  Laura Grey, competent governess and newest member of the Pink Carnation’s eager circle of spies, finds herself in the household of André Jaouen, assistant to the Prefect of Police and, conveniently, widowed father to two young children in need of a governess.  But neither Laura nor André are quite what they seem and it’s not long before events in Paris see them fleeing the city, forced to depend on one another if they are to have any hope of eluding those who wish them ill.    

How exciting it is to have a book set so firmly in Napoleonic France with French rather than English protagonists!  I do love Willig’s English characters from her earlier novels but it is interesting to see the perspective of French characters sympathetic to the aims of the Pink Carnation and her cohorts.  There is a new, exciting dynamic introduced through characters like André Jaouen, a revolutionary whose youthful republican ideals led not to the dreamed-of equality but to the mass slaughters of the Terror. 

I enjoyed Laura and André because they are unexceptional people, dependable thirty-somethings rather than brash, idealistic youths.  Intelligent and competent, they are not extraordinary in any capacity except perhaps in their acceptance of their normalcy.  No swash-buckling or foolish enthusiasms for them, they are more mature than Willig’s previous romantic duos and make for a refreshing change in their ability to analyse and shrewdly respond to the situations they find themselves in. 

The more historical detail Willig puts into her books, the more enjoyment I get out of them and this volume is rich with historical tidbits and allusions.  All the books revolve around the political situation in France and how satisfying it was to finally delve into that situation in more depth and complexity!  What fun it must be to do the research for each book!  We get some glimpse of that research process through Willig’s modern-day, archive-adoring heroine Eloise, a student researching aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars (Best. Thesis. Topic. Ever).  The sixth novel in the series, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, became my favourite largely because of how richly Willig described the tensions in India between the French and the British during that time.  I may say that I only go looking for adventure, romance, and great characters but it is really Willig’s powers as a researcher and her abilities as a writer to intelligently incorporate so much of that research into her tales than earn her books a place on my shelf.    

I find that I am growing increasingly fond of Eloise, our Twenty-First Century American heroine.  When the series began, I viewed all of her appearances as interruptions to the main storyline and resented her accordingly.  Now, I’ve been sucked in by her passion for research and by her boyfriend Colin’s muddled family life.  I’ve reached the point where I’m excited to find a chapter devoted to Eloise slotted in after a cliffhanger in the historical plot, something I would have sworn would never happen three or four books ago.

Willig’s novels are always a treat but she improves so much with each book, her characters becoming increasingly layered, her plots sharper, and, as I enthused before, her escalating level of historical detail so enriching the reader’s comprehension and general reading experience, that I can only regret how long I have to wait for the next installment!

Giveaway: Thanks to the vagaries of the postal system and the generosity of the publisher, I now have a copy of The Orchid Affair to give away to one lucky reader, anywhere in the world!  If you’re interested, just drop me a note in the comments below indicating that you’re interested in the giveaway before midnight Pacific on Sunday, April 3rd.  I’ll announce the winner on Monday.

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I have so many book reviews to catch up on, going back to early February, and I know I should be disciplined and start with the oldest ones so that they get done while I still have some however vague memories of the books but…I don’t want to.  Instead, I want to talk about The Adults by Alison Espach which I picked up last Thursday and could not put down until I’d turned the last page. 

As the novel begins, Emily Vidal is fourteen years old, exchanging pointedly wry observations with Mark, her next door neighbour and adolescent love interest, at her father’s backyard 50th birthday party.  Right from the beginning, Espach perfectly captures the frenetic speech and thought patterns of the intelligent, quick-witted, late-Twentieth Century teen in a way that should have most other authors of coming of age stories seething with jealousy.  It’s not that Emily sees or understands everything, it’s just that everything she does see is so perfectly observed, particularly the niceties of suburban society.  The entire party set piece that opens the novel is eerily perfect, recalling dozens of neighbours and neighbourhood parties from my own youth:

My mother and Mrs. Resnick had not spoken in months for no other reason that they were neighbours who did not realize they had not spoken in months. (p. 5)

In very short order, Emily’s parents announce they are getting a divorce and that her father is moving to Prague, Emily discovers her father has been having an affair with Mrs. Resnick (their next door neighbour and the mother of Mark), Mr. Resnick kills himself in his backyard with Emily as the only witness, and Mrs. Resnick reveals that she is pregnant with Emily’s half-sibling.  A dizzying amount of drama and yet it never tilts into melodrama, though perhaps a comedy as Emily’s asides and observations displaying a cutting wit even as all of her relationships are falling apart.  Her insights into parental tensions are particularly resonant:

Our fathers were the ones who were constantly leaving us, but they were also the men who would always love us, despite our broken conversation and frizzy hair…Fathers were men who were just trying to understand, while mothers were women who were trying to change us. (p. 51)

And in the midst of all this chaos, something important begins.  As she loses her father to Europe and her mother to a haze of alcohol and depression, fifteen-year old Emily strikes up an intoxicating and illicit relationship with her twenty-four year old English teacher, known among his adoring female students as ‘Mr. Basketball’, a love affair that will stretch well into her twenties and form the emotional fulcrum for the larger tale of Emily’s coming of age.

Writing about relationships between teachers and students while retaining the reader’s sympathies for each character is impossible.  But there is no doubt in Emily’s mind as to what she wants from him when their relationship begins: the feelings are mutual and intense and draw them back together, year after year, until Emily is older even than Mr. Basketball was when they first met.  He is never truly vilified and their relationship is not romanticized, though there is certainly an erotic tension throughout.  But the way Emily sees him changes as she grows older, as they encounter one another at different life stages, and the reader’s views change accordingly.  They love one another, passionately but destructively.  Their relationship is a reminder of weakness and of mistakes, of vulnerability and selfishness.  It’s all very dark and very, very weird but kind of wonderful because of that.  This is not a love story where you want a happy ending.

The novel skips large passages of time, completely bypassing Emily’s college years when she studied, of all things, interior decorating and design.  It seems an odd choice for a character so introspective and thoughtful, only foreshadowed by an effort in high school to pull her mother out of her depression by redecorating the living room.  That said, it’s very nice to have an urban female, twenty-something character who doesn’t have a staple Young-Modern-Unthreatening-Because-I-Will-Never-Make-More-Than-My-Hero-WomanTM career (writer, PR girl, artistically-inclined entrepreneur, etc).  The middle section, chronologically, takes place in Prague when Emily is twenty-two – a surreal, fantastical setting for a relatively strange period of Emily’s life.  I did, predictably, adore all of the Czech details.  There are people drinking Krušovice and Becherovka (though they seem to be doing shots of the latter at a bar which seems odd as it is something that everyone I know views more as a medicinal tonic than beverage of choice) and there are so many Czech phrases dropped that it almost felt like I was at a family reunion. 

Funny (hilarious even), intelligent, and generally entertaining, I read this in one afternoon, unable to put it down when each page seemed to include a universal insight that spoke directly to me.  This is what growing up feels like, all the pain and embarrassment, the euphoria and confusion, eloquently distilled in paper and ink.  An unexpected and wonderful debut novel.

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A Sunday in Spring

What makes a perfect spring Sunday?

A few colourful flowers in my garden…

A lovely home-made Victoria Sponge (which had to be made after other commentators over at Darlene’s blog expressed their shock that I’d never tried one) displayed on my favourite ‘Blue Onion’ Meissen…

And a much-anticipated book…

Life is good.

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Library Lust

Austrian National Library (Vienna)

I’ve been featuring a lot of home libraries lately but now it’s time to return to stately, well-financed ones like this, the Austrian National Library in Vienna.  It does feel very Austrian, doesn’t it?  Bright and airy yet highly ornate, it’s a library I can appreciate for it’s own architectural merits, independent of the books.

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The new film version of Jane Eyre opened here today and, rather to my surprise considering my distaste for the novel, I found myself attending the four o’clock matinee.  But I do love costume dramas and the reviews had been good so off I went with my mother, who, not having read Jane Eyre since high school, really had no idea what she was about to see.  My expectations were certainly exceeded, not necessarily by the film as a whole but by its one central performance.      

Mia Wasikowska is mesmerizing as Jane.  She took a character I have never liked, at the center of a story I continue to view more as an unrestrained juvenile fantasy than a great romance, and for the first time made me like Jane and feel for her.  I shall never understand her, but I certainly came away feeling sympathy and respect for her, which is the first time that has happened in the ten years since we were first introduced in my Grade Nine English class.  Indeed, Wasikowska’s performance is so strong that I found myself looking at her even when other actors were speaking.  Readers, I barely even looked at Judi Dench during their shared scenes, so intent was I on observing this perfect Jane.  Judi Dench.  Ignored.  By me.  Shocking.  Did the world really need another adaptation of Jane Eyre?  No.  But for Wasikowska’s performance alone it has been proved a worthwhile undertaking.

Mr Rochester was his usual disturbing combination of desperate and cruel and the moors  beautiful and stark, as is their wont.  Neither can elicit much of a reaction from me.  The excesses of Charlotte Brontë in forming both her characters and her plot have had me rolling my eyes since I was fifteen.  I have no stomach for such theatrics, for passions better suited to opera houses, for all-consuming, never-ending dramatics.  My problem understanding the Brontës in general is that they seem to have felt things in a way and on a scale entirely foreign to me.  They speak of undying love and emotions that drive their characters to obsession and misery.  I am more Austen-esque in my world view.  An attractive mate is not one who lashes cruelly out at others with the intention of wounding, interrupted by intermittent periods of brooding and manipulation, but one with a good income, a comfortable home, and an affectionate, steady nature.  Bloodless perhaps, by the romantic standards of Charlotte and her sisters, but nevertheless that is my preference.

Carolyn and I have had this discussion before but I remain unconvinced: what is there to love about Jane Eyre?  Wherein lies its appeal?

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Friday Potpourri

credit: naturegrl64 (flickr)

Confessions of a book hoarder – Mark Medley muses in The National Post on a problem I’m sure many of us are familiar with:
My first impression, upon seeing so many new books in one place, is to dive into them headfirst, like Scrooge McDuck into his vault of gold bullions

The Best Alternative Histories – AbeBooks’ list of the top 25 alternative histories in literature.  Very US-centered but lots of fun reading ideas.

Best Elizabeth Taylor Biographers and Books to Help You Remember the Great Elizabeth Taylor – only makes me more determined to finally read Furious Love.

David Lodge on HG Wells – HG Wells may not be one of my favourite authors but his personal life is endlessly fascinating. 

Children ‘should read 50 books a year’ – why has there been so little discussion about this, at least in our little corner of the blogging world?  Is everyone saving this for a thoughtful, weekend post?  There are a lot of practical challenges here, obviously library closures being a major concern, but what do you think of the idea itself?  I’ve read a view interesting viewpoints (both from noted authors and columnists pondering parental involvement) already but I’d love to hear more from my fellow readers.

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Recent Arrivals

There have been a lot of books arriving here over the last few weeks!  I love any kind of mail but parcels, especially when you know they contain books, are by far the most exciting.  I have ten new arrivals to catch you up on, half of which are review copies, the other half purchased with the Amazon gift certificate my brother and his girlfriend so generously gave me for my birthday last month.    Here we go:

 

Mrs Ames by E.F. Benson
via LibraryThing Early Reviewers (ER).  I have an awful history of not reading ER books in a timely manner, definitely something I’m hoping to correct this time!

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn
Unsolicited copy from the publisher.

The Orchid Affair by Lauren Willig
Requested copy from the publisher.  Willig’s novels are always a treat – the perfect thing to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon.

Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford
Requested copy from the publisher.  Really, who doesn’t want to read this?  Everything I’ve heard has been wonderful and I’m waiting for the perfect afternoon to sit down with it, preferably with tea and cake close at hand.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Unsolicited copy from the publisher.

 

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson
Very happy to have tracked this down!  My Ibbotson collection is now as complete as I need it to be (I don’t have Magic Flutes but it’s my least favourite of her novels and I see no need to own it). 

More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton
Thornton very kindly sent me a copy last year of her novel The Tapestry of Love, which is currently languishing unread in storage, probably in the same box as all the other novels that weren’t supposed to end up there.  Oh well.  But I must admit that this was the Thornton title I was most excited to read (Mystica’s review last fall definitely spurred me on) and since my local library does not have any of her works I broke down and ordered a used copy from Amazon.  It arrived on Monday and was begun and finished shortly thereafter.  Enthusiastic review to follow.

1939: The Last Season by Anne de Courcy
So my other de Courcy books don’t get lonely on the shelf.  It’s been a long time since I read this but I remember enjoying it. 

Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer
Continuing to expand my Czech collection.

A Truth Universally Acknowledged edited by Susannah Carson
Ever since I read this last year, I’ve been longing to return to some of the essays, particularly when I was rereading Austen in the fall.  There’s nothing more torturous than knowing exactly what you want to read and not having access to it!  So now I have my own copy of this excellent volume for unlimited future reference.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

 

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks
Having tried and failed to enjoy her novels, the premise for this non-fiction book sounded too interesting for me to let my past experiences with Brooks stand in the way of it. 

The Adults by Alison Espach
Saw this reviewed in the NYT last month and immediately placed a hold on it.  I am strangely taken with the cover design as well, though I can’t think why.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
YAY!!!  I’ve been waiting for this for so long and am very much looking forward to settling down with it this weekend so I can give it the attention all of Atkinson’s works deserve.  Jackson Brodie, how I have missed you.

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