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Archive for the ‘Helen Rappaport’ Category

After slacking off a bit with my non-fiction reading earlier in the year, May saw me stepping up my game (also receiving a number of much-anticipated library holds – truly the deciding factor when it comes to what I read) with seven non-fiction titles.  But it was still balanced by many, many rom-coms.  

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary (2022) – Three women are stood up by Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day: Siobhan, who enjoys their hotel hook-ups when she’s visiting from Dublin; Jane, who Jospeh had promised to partner as a fake date for an event she dreaded; and Miranda, his girlfriend.  None gets a straight answer as to why she was stood up and so their doubts begin to grow.

O’Leary treads a line here between slick and smart and I’m still not entirely sure which I think she pulls off but it’s fundamentally a fun book, even if Joseph remains a (necessarily) distant figure throughout and therefore not an ideal romantic hero.

Free by Lea Ypi (2021) – a wonderful memoir about growing up in Albania in the dying years of communism and in the desperate 1990s.  Ypi provides an interesting glimpse into a country I know little about and her memories of helped me understand all the modern stereotypes I’ve absorbed – of gangsters trafficking people across the Adriatic and illegal workers in Italy – and how they came to be.  A good country to leave, sadly.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021) – the subtitle for Sieghart’s entertaining and enraging book is “Why Women Are Still Taken Less Serious Than Men, and What We Can Do About It”, but it’s hard to get excited about the (very practical) actions she outlines when you realise just how many of them there are.  I suspect there won’t be many surprises here for most women, especially those in the corporate world, but it’s helpful to have the facts.  A book you’ll want to make every man in your office read (but will they take it seriously?).

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (2019) – Reread.  A joyous foodie memoir about Cloake’s bicycle journey through France to explore regional specialties.

Goblin Hill by Essie Summers (1977) – After Faith’s parents die, she discovers she was adopted with only just enough time to reconnect with her dying birth mother.  Now knowing the identify of her birth father, she looks for a job near his New Zealand farm until she can work up the courage to present herself.  She starts work as a family historian only to discover that the women who have hired her are her great-aunts.  Soon she is caught up in the family (especially with Gareth Morgan, her stepbrother) while waiting for her father to return from his travels.  There are many silly secrets and the overall effect is classic Summers but far from her best.

The Wedding Crasher by Abigail Mann (2022) – an enjoyably slow-moving romcom about a woman who finds herself swept up into the wedding chaos of her university housemate years after last seeing him.  It’s a bizarrely complicated set up but Mann makes it work with fundamentally relatable characters.  This is her third novel and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Twelve Days in May by Niamh Hargan (2022) – jumping from one novel about two university friends contemplating what-might-have-been, I fell straight into another.  I guess we know what people were musing about during Covid lockdowns.

Twelve years after meeting in Bordeaux, Lizzy and Ciaran reconnect at the Cannes film festival where his film is debuting and she is working for the Scottish Film Board.  With allegations of plagiarism against Ciaran, his PR team pulls her in to the media whirlwind to attest to the originality of the film, based on their Erasmus experience.  But the film – and being together – brings back memories of their intense friendship all those years before and its abrupt ending.  Soon Lizzy is wondering how well she really remembers what happened and if there is a chance to start again.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood (2022) – Hazelwood has a trio of linked novellas that have come out before her second novel is released in August.  They’ve been released first as audiobooks and I did listen to the other two but this was the only one I read.  About three friends in STEM fields, I honestly found all the characters very annoying and the romances frustrating, though this one – about two unwilling housemates who eventually fall in love – was…the least frustrating?  Faint praise, indeed.

The Temporary European by Cameron Hewitt (2022) – For North American travellers, Rick Steves is a dependable and practical travel guru, inspiring others with his passion for European travel.  Cameron Hewitt is his right-hand man and equally excited about sharing his love of Europe.  I’ve loved reading his blog posts over the years, especially since his main area of focus is Central and Eastern Europe, so it’s no surprise I loved this collection of travel essays.  Like Rick, Cameron is funny, generally optimistic, and candid about his likes and dislikes.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry (2022) – when literary agent Nora’s sister insists they take a holiday together to a small town in North Carolina, Nora can’t refuse.  Ever since their single-parent mother died twelve years before (and even before that), Nora has felt responsible for Libby’s happiness.  Seeing how harried Libby is now – pregnant and with two young daughters already – Nora goes along with the plan.  She’s less willing to go along with Libby’s romance-novel-esque list of things to do while there (ride a horse, go skinny dipping, date a local).  But when Nora finds a familiar face in the small town – Charlie, an editor she’s crossed paths with in New York – things begin to look up.

Henry is very, very, very good at romcoms and this may be her best so far.  Nora is the anti-Hallmark heroine.  She feels cast as the evil urban ice queen, whose boyfriends go on business trips to quirky small towns and find love with peppy girls trying to save their family companies.  When she finds herself in a small town…that does not change.  And I loved that.  Nora gets to be who she is throughout – a successful, competent, in-control woman.  And she gets a successful, competent, in-control love interest who doesn’t need to challenge or change her, just be there for her to rely on and let her feel comfortable enough to relax a little.  Truly, the dream.

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (2022) – a superb blend of history and memoir in which journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day.  Reviewed here.

Borders by Thomas King (2021) – a graphic novel adaptation of an old short story by King about a boy and his mother trying to cross the Canada-US border.  When his mother is unwilling to identify her nationality as anything other than Blackfoot (whose lands straddle the border), the boy and his mother find themselves stuck in a no man’s land at the border crossing.

The Meet Cute Method by Portia MacIntosh (2022) – Still enjoying my discovery of MacIntosh’s romcoms.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016) – Reread of Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (2022) – another fascinating history from the always reliable Rappaport about the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution.  Reviewed here.

A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1931) – excellent sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand from the perspective of Abby Deal’s granddaughter Laura.  Laura is determined to fulfil the gentile aspirations her grandmother never achieved but, ultimately, like Abby she finds herself tempted by love and the promise of friendship and a family.  Aldrich poignantly tracks the decline of the first generation of pioneers and reflects on how quickly the country has changed, that the grandchildren of those early settlers now take going to college for granted and have the whole world at their feet.

New Zealand Inheritance by Essie Summers (1957) – this was Summers’ first book and she certainly began as she meant to go on.  Roberta returns to her grandfather’s Otago farm in her mid-twenties, after travelling the world with her artistic parents and nursing them through their final years.  Now she is looking for roots and feels drawn back to Heatherleigh, where she spent one idyllic summer as a child.  When she arrives, it seems as though her grandfather’s one-time shepherd and now neighbour, Muir Buchanan, is paying her attentions with an eye to her inheritance.  Roberta, fighting her attraction, decides to lead him on a merry dance.

Roberta is the worst kind of heroine: a sensible person doing absolutely bonkers things to serve the plot.  And Muir is uselessly uncommunicative and struggling a bit with the chip on his shoulder.  Backed up by some absurdly melodramatic stories for secondary characters, it’s all a bit much.

How We Met by Huma Qureshi (2021) – a short, gentle memoir about Qureshi’s experiences growing up in a family and culture that shaped her approach to finding a romantic partner – and how she eventually chose a different path and a very different sort of husband.

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan (2022) – I loved the writing in this story of a young woman starting a new life at university in Dublin, growing away from the swimming that defined her teen years and delving into her family’s past and the suicide of her famous poet grandfather. But…there are too many buts to count.  The plot and characterization are bog standard and I’m sure I’ll forget everything within a month or two.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2022) – Extremely good YA novel about two university freshmen who find themselves stuck – à la Groundhog Day – reliving the same day over and over.  When they realise it’s happening to them both, they band together and start trying to break out of the loop and move forward with their lives.  As days turn to weeks, they have time to get to know one another, go a little loopy, work through some issues, and, very sweetly, fall in love.  It’s all delightful, funny, and poignant, and the characters, both dealing with baggage they don’t particularly want to confront, are highly relatable (if a little too emotionally evolved for eighteen year olds).

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I went into After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport, an accessible history of the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution, feeling well primed.  Far too many viewings of Anastasia as a child (I really, really loved Ingrid Bergman) had long-ago established Paris in my mind as the home of exiled Russians living a surreal mix of poverty and fantasy, dispossessed of their country and heritage but clinging to it nonetheless in a world where White Russian generals now ran nightclubs and, perhaps, a lost princess lived on the streets.  Rappaport reintroduced me to that world – for it did exist – but also to the glittering era that came before and the harsher realities that followed, not quite suitable for 1950s celluloid.

Rappaport begins during the Belle Epoque, when France was already drawing Russians westward.  It drew some who were not welcome in the Tsar’s Russia but Rappaport focuses predominantly in those early years on the grand dukes and counts, the princesses and even the Dowager Empress who flocked to the city of light to enjoy its many pleasures.  They lived happily and lavishly, using their great wealth to acquire mansions, art, automobiles, and – for many Grand Dukes – charming feminine company.  Naturally, Russian artists followed the money, with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes taking the city by storm and Stravinsky shocking it with The Rite of Spring.  It was a glittering era funded by unimaginable wealth, allowing the privileged to bounced between the Riviera and Paris.  But Paris was a city of pleasure and escape rather than home and with the start of the First World War the bulk of the Russian community returned to their palaces and estates in the east.  Some of them would never make it out again.

Those who survived the revolution and escaped to France returned in very different circumstances.  They used what skills they had to survive: rich young men who once owned fleets of cars now drove others about.  Aristocratic women who counted needlework as one of their few accomplishments found use for it in the fashion capital of the world.  And children who had had the best music tutors in the country grew up to be adults who made music not for pleasure at private gatherings but for money as entertainers.  This included Count Mikhail Tolstoy, the son of the author, who formed a Russian folk music trio with a general’s wife and a prince.  He explained:

My situation, like that of my two friends, is a mystery to nobody.  I have been ruined since 1919, when I left Russia.  I have seven children in school in France.  I love music, so why shouldn’t I attempt to live by it?  The memory of my father forbids me writing so I’m going to sing and play the piano.

Fascinatingly, Rappaport not only reports on these odd new occupations but contextualizes them for us.  The deadening suburban factory jobs – poorly paid and offering little hope of advancement – offer a way to put food on the table but not much else.  Fashion work is clearly more prestigious but precarious, particularly for those who attempted to set up their own fashion houses.  The pinnacle of achievement seems to have been the taxi driver.  With enough money to purchase a car and complete the licensing requirements, taxi drivers were usually already better off than the majority of emigrants and the independence of their profession gave them better control over their earnings.  It wasn’t a foolproof path to a bright future but it was better than what most of the Russian community was facing.

Despite Russia’s pre-existing ties to France, it was not a story of successful emigration.  People eked out an existence, with generally menial, poorly-paid work, that left them exhausted and hopeless.  Leading writers lost both the world they wrote about and the audience they wrote for, now too poor to buy novels and poetry.  Paris was not the land of opportunity and soon energetic refugees began looking across the Atlantic for (another) fresh start.

But those without such dynamism stayed, plodding on, until some realised they could take no more and chose either to return to Russia or end it all.  There is a particularly poignant story of a count who could not go on.  Formerly a diplomat, fluent in six languages, he found himself adrift in Paris.  His one attachment was to his old French governess, who he visited devotedly, but with her death that one last reason to survive disappeared.  He killed himself in a city park.

And then there were the dreamers and schemers, the fantasists who sought to correct the past by presenting fake Anastasias or attempting to establish a new Romanov Tsar to continue the glorious traditions.  But there would be no continuing.

I am a detail-oriented person so I adore the specificity of Rappaport’s books.  She clearly has expert knowledge – and superb research skills – of several eras and focuses intensely on periods or details which other historians might simply address in a single chapter.  Her earlier books about the Romanovs focus on the short lives of the princesses (Four Sisters), the family’s last days (Ekaterinburg), and the failure of royal cousins and foreign governments to rescue them from their tragic fate (The Race to Save the Romanovs) and each one is absolutely fascinating.  Her account of Queen Victoria’s cult of mourning after Prince Albert’s death (A Magnificent Obsession) concentrates on a defining but brief period of a long life and is superb.  And she does the same thing here, choosing to focus on a very specific refugee population and their experiences, creating a deep sense of place and, by contrasting the pre- and post-revolution experiences, an immense sense of what was lost.

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With so many books (so many) waiting to be reviewed, it is overwhelming to know where to start.  But in honour of this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Queen, I knew just what to review today: A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport (apparently the article was deemed necessary for the North American edition – in the UK it is simply Magnificent Obsession).  As we celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the throne, what could be more appropriate than to consider a book about the only other British monarch to have reached that milestone?  With the sad lack of street parties or public gatherings of any kind in my corner of the Commonwealth, this (and a celebratory fruit cake baked on Saturday) will be the extent of my celebrations.

After reading Harriet, Lyn, and especially Elaine’s glowing reviews of this last year, I was thrilled when my library copy of A Magnificent Obsession finally arrived.   I started reading immediately and did not put it down until I had turned the last page.  I have always enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria, even though I have never particularly warmed to her.  From all the biographies I’ve read and especially from her correspondence with her eldest daughter Vicky, she has always struck me as self-centred, demanding, unsympathetic, and rather irresponsible.  But I adore the intelligent, disciplined Prince Albert and am endlessly fascinated by the relationship between the Queen and her consort.

Rappaport’s subtitle is Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy and the book focuses on Prince Albert’s final illness and the following ten years, from 1861 to 1871, when the Queen retreated from public life and her official duties to wallow in her grief.  Full of detail, the book offers an absorbing and frequently disturbing chronicle of a woman who, having lost the husband she loved so passionately, throws herself entirely into the theatrical act of mourning him and protecting his memory, and of the consequences that obsession had on both her family and the way the monarchy was viewed in Britain.

The book begins by outlining the extent of the sober Albert’s influence over the frivolous Victoria and the overwhelming volume of work and intense responsibility she happily passed on to him.  After a difficult beginning to their marriage, when Albert found himself frustrated by his lack of responsibilities, he slowly and steadily assumed more vital duties.  By the 1850s, having become Victoria’s chief adviser, “Albert believed that his wife, and more importantly the monarchy, could not function smoothly without his own now-essential input.”  And the Queen believed it too, cheerfully indulging in the fantasy of herself as the dear little wife reliant on her husband’s support.  But Victoria’s reliance on Albert was too complete and her demands too exhausting:

His constant sublimation of his own needs to his wife’s far more volatile emotional ones had worn him down: always putting her first, advising, reassuring, consoling, shielding her from trouble and anxiety at every turn and being the crucial stabilising force that had enabled Victoria to fulfil her duties as Queen.

These details appear in other biographies but what really struck me about Rappaport’s description of his final years, plagued by illness, fatigue and constant stress, was his loneliness.  Albert was Victoria’s all, the focus of all her passionate worship.  But for Albert, so much more intelligent and thoughtful than his wife, so much more moderate in his emotions, his wife could never been the equal companion with whom he could share his true self.  She exhausted him.  He did have a few close male friends and his dear, brilliant daughter Vicky who could provide the kind of intellectual companionship he needed but slowly he lost them too, as the friends died and his daughter married and moved to Prussia:

By the late 1850s, with the departure of his adored daughter Vicky, who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858, much of Albert’s vital spark had irretrievably faded; he became increasingly stern and humourless, retreating into himself more and more.  Without real friends or close intellectual peers, or his own entourage at court, or a supportive political faction in Parliament, his only consolation was his work.  And much as he loved his wife, Albert’s attachment to her was increasingly driven by the principles of reason and duty and doing the right thing.  Victoria was fundamentally his ‘gutes Wiebchen’ – the good and loyal little wife – and mother of his children.  She gave him her all, but for a man as restless as Albert it was never enough; she was not, and never could be, his soul’s mistress.  And for Victoria it was agony; there was nothing she could do to hold back the tide of melancholy and pessimism that was engulfing her husband.

The details of Albert’s final illness (the cause of which Rappaport proposes was Crohn’s disease, not the contemporary diagnosis of typhoid fever) are fascinating – everything in this book is fascinating – but it is Rappaport’s chronicle of Victoria’s first, bizarre decade as a widow that makes this book unique.  The woman turned mourning and grief into an obsession, making it difficult for her children to lead normal, healthy lives with her demands for their companionship, the strict pageantry she demanded of mourners, and her fixation on the saintliness of her dead husband.  She isolated herself away from the public – and her government – primarily at Balmoral and devoted herself to widowhood.  She was determined to memorialise Albert so that the people of Britain would never forget his significance and – of no less importance – his moral perfection.

But while the public outpouring of grief at his death had been impressive, the public memory is short and as the years of Victoria’s self-imposed isolation dragged on, sympathy waned for the “widow of Windsor”.  By 1871, with republican sentiment on the rise as the reclusive queen continued to demand large sums for private use and the scandalous Prince of Wales ran up debts, the situation seemed dire.  The sense of tension in these chapters is a testament to Rappaport’s skill; we know that the monarchy is not going to be abolished in the 1870s, we know that Victoria still has thirty years left in her reign, we know it and yet you can’t help but feel anxious, desperate for her to take up the reigns of responsibility once more or else who knows…

This is getting repetitive but it cannot be said enough: the level of detail here is wonderful.  Rappaport’s liberal quoting of Victoria’s letters and diaries is nicely balanced with the perspectives of those affected by her grief – her children, the government, and the public.  You get a wonderful sense of both the private world of Victoria’s grief and of the ever-changing world beyond her, at first sympathetic to her loss and then, as the years went on, frustrated by her absence.  From the first page to the last (the very last, since I had a wonderful time reading the bibliography) I was delighted by this book.  It is a wonderful history that reads with the intensity of a well-plotted novel and it more than lived up to my high expectations for it.

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