Archive for April, 2011

Library Lust


I can’t help but think how convenient this set-up would be for those days when all you want to do is stay in bed and read!  Having all the books shelved with their spines facing inward does make for a nice, neutral backdrop but it might make it difficult to find just what you’re looking for – you’d need to have a very good memory of where things are kept for this to be practical!

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Did I wake up at two o’clock in the morning to watch the Royal wedding?  Yes.

Do I still have a full day of work ahead of me, despite my body’s overwhelming desire to fall back into bed?  Yes.

Was it worth it?  Absolutely.  The bridal couple, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were just as glowing as all newly weds should be, the dress was, of course, beautiful, and I thought the Bishop of London’s sermon was particularly lovely. 

What a happy, happy day!

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After my grandfather retired in the 1980s, he and my grandmother devoted themselves to working on the family tree.  In the days before the internet with its quick online database searches, this meant filing cabinets full of meticulous notes, phone bills for long distance calls to records offices all over the world, and, most excitingly, trips around the globe to ferret out existing relatives.  They loved it.  When one family tree was done, they’d move on to another branch of the family and so they continued for years, happily gathering and recording stories before they were forgotten.  For them, this was important work.  It was important to them that they know who came before and that they pass that knowledge down to their children and grandchildren so that we too would know.  I took that to heart as a child.  I already loved history but it became more important to me when I considered events that I knew had impacted my family.  It made it more personal and, because of that, far more exciting. 

The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff feeds directly into my fascination with family history; it is the story of four generations of the aristocratic Ignatieff family, focusing primarily on his grandparents, Princess Natasha Mestchersky and Count Paul Ignatieff, who leftRussia in 1919 with their sons, moving first toEngland before settling inCanada.  Ignatieff never met Natasha or Paul – both died before he was born – but he had their memoirs to work from as well as the recollections of his father and uncles.  The result is a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987. 

This is a strange review to write at this time.  When Michael Igantieff wrote this book he was a Canadian ex-pat author and academic living in theUK.  Now, he is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the official opposition to the current Conservative government, campaigning across the country in preparation for Monday’s federal election.  It feels strange to be writing here about a person who appears every night on the news, who shows up every day in my newspaper.  This book has absolutely nothing to do with politics and nor does my reaction to it but the upcoming election does make me hesitant to offer an opinion on Ignatieff that goes beyond his writing ability.  I shall do so anyway but please, my few Canadian readers, do not think I am attempting to influence your vote by doing so.  This is not an attempt at political propaganda; it is just a simple book review.

The first chapter is rather daunting, full of Ignatieff’s academic musings on ethics and methodology, but it also contains some of his most personal and thoughtful passages, the ones that made me warm to him.  In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys Hector says: The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”  That is why I read, searching for moments, for writers, who can do that.  And Ignatieff does, distilling what I have perhaps always thought and felt about my own family and my own situation but never been able to express, in just the way I would have wished to have said it:

Between my two pasts, the Canadian and the Russian, I felt I had to choose.  The exotic always exerts a stronger lure than the familiar and I was always my father’s son.  I chose the vanished past, the past lost behind the revolution.  I could count on my mother’s inheritance: it was always there.  It was my father’s past that mattered to me, because it was one I had to recover, to make my own.  (p. 10)

My father’s family, full of farmers and teachers, librarians and ministers, has always provided stability for me.  That part of my identity is clear.  They are Canadian just as I am, they grew up in surroundings I can relate to, spoke a language I speak, were part of the history I was taught in school.  My mother’s family is different.  Alien and alluring, I cannot remember a time when I did not want to know more about them, to see the cities where they lived, to hear the languages they spoke- anything to try and understand these foresters and executioners, dilettantes and opera singers who I am descended from.  But I have their photos and painted portraits, can stare into their faces in an attempt to know them.  There is something so reassuring about having a visual record of your past:

For many families, photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop.  In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time.  I never feel I know my friends until either I meet their parents or see their photographs and since this rarely happens, I often wonder if I know anybody very well.  (p.2)

This idea of not knowing anyone well without knowing or having seen their family really resonated with me.  It is not something I had ever thought to analyse before but I am definitely not entirely comfortable with anyone until I’ve met their family or, if their relatives are too far away or no longer alive, seen their photographs.  I can know people for years but as soon as I meet their parents there is suddenly a new level of intimacy in the relationship.

However, let me be clear, this is a book primarily about Ignatieff’s ancestors and not his relationship to his family’s past (even if that is what I found most interesting about it).  I cannot claim any great knowledge of Tsarist Russia – you’ll notice it has not come up in many of my previous reading choices – but it is fascinating to see how the Ignatieff family served their homeland as soldiers and, far more interestingly, diplomats and politicians.  If nothing else, one must hope that after four generation an immunity to insult would now be inbred.  Certainly nothing said today can equal Lord Salisbury’s style back in 1877 in describing Ignatieff’s great grandfather Nicholas as a “brilliant and fluent talker who adorns his conversations with fictions so audaciously unconvincing as to become a constant source of amusement.”  If politicians could construct such well-phrased insults today then I should be pleased to listen to them!

Though it is his male ancestors who spent their time doing things that would later see them remembered in history books, Ignatieff does not ignore his female relatives.  It feels as if more attention is given to his grandmother Natasha than to her husband Paul and she is spoken of almost with awe.  Though not a warm woman, she comes across as brave and determined, more than able to face the many challenges that awaited her after the Revolution began:

That autumn of 1918 the boys first became aware of how much the times had changed their mother.  She was no longer the frail, vague, comical and retiring figure of their childhood inPetrograd.  Hardship had weathered her.  During their father’s arrest, she had been like a tigress, enraged, tenacious and unafraid.  Now that most of the servants had gone, she took over the housekeeping.  She had never so much as boiled water in her life before.  Now they watched her leave the house in the morning dressed in a shabby black overcoat, with her hair in a peasant woman’s shawl, to queue at the baker’s for crumbling loaves made out of corn, potato flour and bran.  One of the boys went with her when she travelled out into the villages to bargain for mutton, cooking far and honey.  She had become sharp and shrewd and resilient.  And she never railed at fate. (p. 136-137)

My only quibble with the book is the limited glimpse you get into the family’s life once settled in Canada.  While his uncles and his father were still alive, perhaps it seemed too intimate to discuss in more than the barest of details.  Or perhaps I am just being greedy because I desperately want to know more about George Ignatieff, Michael’s father, who was a contemporary and friend of Lester Pearson (Prime Minister) and Charles Ritchie (the noted diplomat and diarist).  I read Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years as an impressionable adolescent and ever since have had a growing passion for the Canadian diplomats of his generation, particularly the ones, like Pearson, Ignatieff, and Ritchie, who worked out of Canada House in London during the war.  But then the purpose of this book wasn’t to chronicle a new beginning.  It is not a narrative that can be neatly wrapped up and given a happy ending.  The purpose was simply to remember:

I have not been on a voyage of self-discovery: I have just been keeping a promise to two people I never knew.  These strangers are dear to me not because their lives contain the secret of my own, but because they saved their memory for my sake.  They beamed out a signal to a generation they would never live to see.  They kept faith with me and that is why I must keep faith with them and with those who are coming after me.  There is no way of knowing what my children will make of ancestors from the age of dusty roads and long afternoons on the shaded veranda deep in the Russian countryside.  But I want to leave the road marked and lighted, so that they can travel into the darkness ahead, as I do, sure of the road behind.  (p. 185)

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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 last few library visits have been very ordered.  I went to pick up holds or to pull titles that I had carefully identified beforehand.  Not this week.  This week I just wandered through the aisles, happily browsing but with no particular intention of checking out that many new books – after all, I still have quite a lot checked out from previous trips.  But these titles were either too fun (Wodehouse is irresistible to me when the weather warms up – sunshine and light comedy is such an encouraging combination) or too exciting (there is something so exhilarating in finding an much anticipated title at your local branch) to resist.  So here we are!


Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons
At the outset of World War II, Jack Rosenblum, his wife Sadie, and their baby daughter escape Berlin, bound for London. They are greeted with a pamphlet instructing immigrants how to act like “the English.” Jack acquires Saville Row suits and a Jaguar. He buys his marmalade from Fortnum & Mason and learns to list the entire British monarchy back to 913 A.D. He never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. But the one key item that would make him feel fully British -membership in a golf club-remains elusive. In post-war England, no golf club will admit a Rosenblum. Jack hatches a wild idea: he’ll build his own.

Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse
Anyone who involves himself with Roberta Wickham is asking for trouble, so naturally Bertie Wooster finds himself in just that situation when he goes to stay with his Aunt Dahlia at Brinkley Court.  So much is obvious.  Why celebrated loony-doctor, Sir Roderick Glossop, should be there too, masquerading as a butler, is less clear.  As for Bertie’s former headmaster, the ghastly Aubrey Upjohn, and the dreadful novelist, Mrs Homer Cream with her eccentric son, Wilbert, their presence is entirely perplexing. Without Jeeves to help him solve these mysteries, Bertie nearly comes unstuck. It is only when that peerless manservant returns from his holiday that the tangle of problems is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction–except Bertie’s.

Uncle Dynamite by P.G. Wodehouse
Although the story of Uncle Dynamite concerns Bill Oakshott’s struggle to find ways of getting his girl while financing his inheritance at Ashenden Manor, the real hero of the book is Frederick Altamont Cornwallis, fifth Earl of Ickenham. This noble lord describes himself as ‘one of the hottest earls that ever donned a coronet’ and he was also one of his creator’s favourite characters, featuring in three other novels. Lord Ickenham sees it as his mission to bring a little joy into the lives of others, and on this occasion he surpasses himself.


The Vinyl Café Notebooks by Stuart McLean
The first ever collection of essays from The Vinyl Cafe. From meditations on the startling honesty of children, to praise for the watermelon, The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks runs the gamut from thoughtful perspective to light-hearted opinion. Whether Stuart McLean is visiting the curling rink in Clanwilliam, Manitoba or Robert Stanfield’s gravesite in Halifax his observations are absorbing, unexpected, original and always entertaining.

One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid
Meet Iain Reid: an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something, living in the big city in a bug-filled basement apartment and struggling to make ends meet. When Iain lands a job at a radio station near his childhood home, he decides to take it. But the work is only part time, so he is forced to move back in with his lovable but eccentric parents on their hobby farm. What starts out as a temporary arrangement turns into a year-long extended stay, in which Iain finds himself fighting with the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on a gluttonous fare of home-cooked food, and ultimately easing (perhaps a little too comfortably) into the semiretired lifestyle.

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller
Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation — female version — but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written — until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.

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Royal Frenzy

No longer my motto…

Coming off a long weekend, there should be no excuses for not having lengthy, witty reviews pre-written for this week.  Despite some wonderful times spent with family and friends, I had more than enough time to knock off a few reviews.  But I did not.  I have been feeling a bit under the weather so instead of sitting diligently at my computer and concentrating I have been curling up on the couch in front of the television where every channel seems obsessively devoted to preparing us for Friday’s Royal Wedding.  I had held out until now.  I had laughed at the merchandising, scoffed at the trashy programs, and generally ignored the magazine covers at the grocery store checkout.  But with only a few days left, I am surrendering myself to the insane media hype.  Because it’s fun and why shouldn’t it be enjoyed, even if much if my enjoyment comes from mocking (the media, you understand me, not the happy couple)?  Most importantly, it means I have now seen William & Kate: The Movie, which brought me an intensity of joy that can only be provoked by truly awful television programming.  It also means that I can’t stop watching the T-Mobile Royal Wedding video, which, unlike the TV movie, is rather spectacularly well cast:

But, in a more literary vein, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite novels inspired by the Windsor family, all enjoyable and, unlike the current television coverage, intelligent:

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin
Freddy is the Prince of Wales, Fredericka his troublesome wife. An overeducated, bumbling anachronism, Freddy commits one glorious gaffe after another, for which he is massacred daily in the British press. Golden-haired Fredericka is frivolous, empty-headed, and fond of wearing spectacular clothing with revealing necklines. Because of the epic public relations disasters caused by these wayward heirs to the throne, they are sent, in a little-known ancient tradition, on a quest to colonise a strange and barbarous land: America. In a tour (de force) of the United States, they are parachuted into the gleaming hell of industrial New Jersey and make their way across the country – riding freight trains, washing dishes, stealing art, gliding down the Mississippi, impersonating dentists, fighting forest fires, and becoming ineluctably enmeshed in the madness of a presidential campaign. Amid the collisions of their royal assumptions with their life on the road, they rise to their full potential, gain the dignity and humility required of great monarchs and good people, and learn to love one another

The Queen and I by Sue Townsend (also see sequel, Queen Camilla)
When a Republican party wins the General Election, their first act in power is to strip the royal family of their assets and titles and send them to live on a housing estate in the Midlands.

Exchanging Buckingham Palace for a two-bedroomed semi in Hell Close (as the locals dub it), caviar for boiled eggs, servants for a social worker named Trish, the Queen and her family learn what it means to be poor among the great unwashed. But is their breeding sufficient to allow them to rise above their changed circumstance or deep down are they really just like everyone else?

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Uncommon Reader is none other than HM the Queen who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely ( JR Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people like the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny.

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Happy Easter!

While reading The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff today, I stumbled across this very interesting description of an Easter Sunday celebrated by Ignatieff’s Russian grandmother, Princess Natasha Mestchersky, in the 1880s or 1890s and just had to share it.  I love when my reading unexpectedly corresponds to the season!:

On Easter Sunday night Natasha would sit in her best dress at the open window waiting for the Kremlin bells to sound.  All day the cooks had been making koulitch and paska and the house smelled of sweet dough, raisins and almonds.  By the early evening, the Easter feast was ready in the dining room: the white dome of the paska stood in the centre of the long trestle table; there were bowls full of the dyed eggs with ‘XB’ – for ‘Christ is Risen’ – on each of them; and she had stained her hands green and blue from dipping the eggs in the dye in the pantry with her sister.  At midnight the Kremlin bells would begin to boom out through the night air and the tolling and pealing would be taken up by church bells all around her, the white domed church at the top of the street where Pushkin had got married, the red brick one down the alley, the chapels in all the side streets, the sound rising to a crescendo of celebration.  Then she would leap down from the window casement and run to the family chapel on the third floor where the choir – nuns from a neighbouring convent, house servants, soloists from the Choudofskoy choir – and her older sisters were already singing.  The butler came up the stairs spreading the Court Water and calling out on each floor, ‘Service is commencing,’ and the servants and governesses and sisters and brothers would rush to take their places.  Behind the butler came the priest and his acolytes in a procession up the winding red-carpeted stairs.  And when the clergy in their white robes had exclaimed, ‘Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed,’ and everyone in the chapel had lit their candles and embraced each other three times, they went out in the dawn air, to feel the breath of spring and the promise of resurrection from winter.  And then they were back inside the dining room to feast on paska and koulitch and taste the abundance of the Easter feast after the fasting of Lent. 

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Library Lust

Book Room (or Ante-Library) at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire

Do you know what I love best about this library?  It’s not even the main library.  It holds the overflow from the main library.

I must now reconfigure my life goals so that the luxury of an ante-library is factored in (though, rest assured, mine will not include pink carpeting).

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Friday Potpourri

The Wilder Life: A “Little House on the Prairie” Road Trip – Laura Miller reviews The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Wendy McClure.  You know I’ve already placed a hold at the library on this one! 

The Other Nancy Mitford –  Let’s pretend that we know no more of Nancy Mitford than we do of Shakespeare, that we have a tempting outline of her life with one or two intriguing details, but no family notoriety, no volumes of letters, no newspaper articles or gossip.  In fact, let’s pretend that Nancy Mitford’s novels weren’t written by the famous Nancy Mitford but by some entirely obscure Mary Smith, who happened to be a middle-class daughter of a greengrocer, possessed of ambition, eloquence, and extraordinary powers of observation.  If we did so, how would the novels hold up?

Jane Eyre – part film review, part fond recollection of a reader’s first encounter with Jane Eyre:
I remember it quite clearly. It was a lazy afternoon in the middle of summer and I was bored witless. I was 11 years old, wasting time, wandering around in the upstairs bedroom of our house, looking for something to do. I picked up a book, an old orange Penguin, and started reading. Two pages later, I was a different person. “This is the greatest book in the history of the world!” I thought to myself.

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I feel rather guilty about saying this because it is a Persephone book and I really, really want to love everything they publish (well, everything aside from The Making of a Marchioness, but I was hoping that would be the only exception) but I did not enjoy The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.  I loved Dickens’ Mariana and thoroughly enjoyed One Pair of Hands but none of the energy or humour so evident in those works is present here.  Instead, we have the rather toothless tale of the pathetic Louise who after her husband’s death finds herself destitute and reliant on the generosity of her three indifferent daughters.

It begins promisingly enough, setting up Louise and her three self-centered daughters, giving you an excellent sense of each woman.  But then absolutely nothing happens.  Louise is traded off between the three, pausing only for a humiliating winter stint at a friend’s hotel on the south coast, and is incredibly insipid and resigned about the whole thing.  She dotes on her eldest granddaughter Ellen (otherwise ignored by her parents), is fond of her sluttish youngest daughter’s husband, Frank, and forms an attachment to Gordon Disher, a trashy-novel-writing bed salesmen.  But she’s just such an indistinct character and is so frustratingly passive about her life!  So much happens around her but she does next to nothing to improve her situation.  And yes, frankly, if she has three daughters who don’t particularly want her around, then she has only herself to blame.  If they’re apathetic towards their mother’s plight and borderline negligent, it’s because their mother was too weak to show them what they should have been.

I think what frustrated me most was the pointlessly episodic structure of the book.  Each section felt so much the same, so repetitive and unvarying.  Admittedly, I’m sure that’s how Louise’s life felt as well, being shuttled from location to location only to be treated with the same indifference and benign neglect wherever she landed.  But, as I reader, I do want some plot, some indication that something might one day happen.  There was no tension, no real sense of suspense to entice me to continue reading.  In fact, I was so disinterested in both the characters and the plot that I had to abandon the book for more than a week after I started reading it, even though I had less than a hundred pages left at the time I did so.  I had hoped that a break might allow me to come back with a fresh perspective, ready to appreciate…something.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

I was equally bothered by the unwavering, almost sentimental sympathy with which Dickens’ treats her protagonist.  I can neither like nor respect Louise and felt vaguely insulted that Dickens’ seemed to think I should feel otherwise.  She is a sad creature, to be sure, but that alone cannot win her my compassion. 

Mostly, I just feel sad for what this book could have been had Dickens infused it with even an ounce of sharpness; an acerbic bite of wit would have been most welcome.  It is competent storytelling but it never asserts itself as anything other than average.

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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!

Quite a mainstream week for me with titles not only by recognizable authors but all so recently published so as to still be on display in shops.  I am perversely pleased by this, as though it is proof that I’m not really a snob when it comes to my book selection.  And, more importantly, I’m excited to read these books; they’re all hold items so I’ve been anticipating their arrival for some time!


Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
Baby Frankie is born into an unusual family. Her mother is desperate to find someone to take care of her child and she doesn’t have much time.

Noel doesn’t seem to be the most promising of fathers but despite everything, he could well be Frankie’s best hope.
As for Lisa, she is prepared to give up everything for the man she loves; surely he’s going to love her back?

And Moira is having none of it. She knows what’s right, and has the power to change the course of Frankie’s life . . . but Moira is hiding secrets of her own.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
In his astonishing new work, Ian Frazier, one of our greatest and most entertaining storytellers, trains his perceptive, generous eye on Siberia, the storied expanse of Asiatic Russia whose grim renown is but one explanation among hundreds for the region’s fascinating, enduring appeal. In Travels in Siberia, Frazier reveals Siberia’s role in history—its science, economics, and politics—with great passion and enthusiasm, ensuring that we’ll never think about it in the same way again.

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope
As the youngest of their three sons marries and Anthony and Rachel Brinkley welcome their third daughter-in-law to the family, no one quite realizes the profound shift about to take place. For their different reasons, the two previous daughters-in-law hadn’t been able to resist Rachel’s maternal clout and Anthony’s gentle charms, and had settled into Brinkley family life without rocking the boat. But Charlotte — very young, very beautiful and semi-spoiled — has no intention of sharing power with her mother-in-law, and sets out to vanquish the matriarch. Soon Rachel’s sons begin to treasonously think of their own houses as home, and of their mother’s house as simply the place where their parents live — a necessary shift of loyalties that sets off fireworks in their mother’s brain, breaks their father’s heart and causes unexpected waves in their own marriages.

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