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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourites books a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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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 genteel 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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We are almost half-way through the year and while there are already a number of books in the running for my end-of-year list of favourites, there is only one that is currently in the race for the number one spot: We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole.  A blend of history and memoir, 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 (this was published in 2021), an extraordinary period of social and economic upheaval.

I was born in the mid-eighties so my first impressions of Ireland were shaped in the 1990s, when the economy was booming and the country was being shaken by revelations about the Catholic church’s involvement in decades of child abuse and the incarceration of girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries.  While we learned a fair amount in school about Ireland in the 19th Century, given how significantly it impacted Canada – around a million Irish people immigrated here during and after the famine, explaining why every farm town where my father’s family is from in Southwestern Ontario is named after an Irish village – our only 20th century content was a quick overview of the War of Independence and the Civil War to give us context for the Troubles and the ongoing peace talks that were always in the news.

What I didn’t learn in school or through the news, I supplemented with Maeve Binchy books, which it turns out were excellent social histories to cover the changing attitudes of a country that changed incredibly quickly.  As O’Toole says early in his book, “the transformation of Ireland over the last sixty years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one.”  Fiction has done a good job of capturing that, but not as good as memoir.

The Ireland O’Toole was born into was a land of emigrants.  The birth rate was low because a generation of child-bearing adults had disappeared, looking for jobs and a future in England or America:

In 1841 the population of what became the twenty-six county Irish state was 6.5 million.  In 1961, it would hit its lowest ever total of 2.8 million.  By that year, a scarcely imaginable 45 per cent of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1936 and 40 per cent of those born between 1936 and 1941 had left.

Yet from such hopeless beginnings, O’Toole has seen Ireland ascend (and fall and ascend and fall and ascend – it’s been a turbulent few decades) to become, unbelievably, a country that draws immigrants.  Economically, this is primarily due to huge investment from America (the numbers are staggering – “by 2017, US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $457 billion, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”), which is slightly worrying as a model for a stable economic future but I digress.  That’s a topic for another book.  Economic growth and stability always drive social change and the liberalising of the country has been, if anything, even more extreme.

Seeing the church through O’Toole eyes is fascinating.  Ireland has modernized so fast that, from the outside, it is easy to forget what a stranglehold the church had on all aspects of society.  They taught your children (and beat them, and molested them), they decided what could be printed or shown on film or TV, and they insisted that women and children who transgressed should be shut up in terrifying institutions.  And in their stranglehold, they allowed corruption to flourish, answerable to no one – an inspiration, surely, for the politicians to come.

Reading Maeve Binchy, not generally an author given to shocking her readers, I was always shocked by the corruption of some of the characters and the casual acceptance of it by others.  What to me seemed so over-the-top and unbelievable now, with all these real-life examples laid before me, seems like harsh social realism.  Still bizarre though, wound up in a society trained for generations by the church to pretend that they don’t see what is happening in front of them and to believe they have no power to change it.

That infantilizing of a nation was, O’Toole asserts, the Catholic church’s greatest achievement.  For years, people had had no way of even finding the words to talk about what had happened to them.  When they tried, when families spoke to the church about what had happened to their children, it was with shame and embarrassment rather than outrage:

It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were ‘quite apologetic’.  It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be concerned as much about the abuser as about those he had abused and might abuse in the future.  It had inserted its system of control and power so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.

The most heartbreaking thing is how widely known the abuses were and how a country chose to live silently with the shame for so long.  Catholicism and Ireland were inexorably entwined.  Everyone knew who the dodgy brothers were at the school, or that when girls disappeared for a few days to England that it was for an abortion that could never be spoken about.  What was then surprising is how quickly the nation embraced changed, how it longed for future generations to have more freedom than theirs had had.  The Irish are great ones for referendums and passed both the 2015 one in favour of same-sex marriage and the 2018 one to legalize abortion with majorities of greater than 60 per cent.  In both cases, O’Toole reports his generation reacting with some surprise to their parents’ votes in favour.  When the abortion ban was repealed, O’Toole was drinking with a politician friend who was happy but conflicted, having not spoken to his elderly, very devout parents who lived on their rural farm, feeling uneasy since he had publicly voiced his support for the repeal.  Their drink was interrupted by a call from his sister, ringing to share her happiness with the result:

Then he asked her how their father and mother were taking it all.  Delighted, she said – sure both of the parents had voted for repeal.  ‘Daddy said he couldn’t bear thinking of all those women coming back from England and not being able to tell anyone what they were going through.’  There had been, all along in the old man’s mind, another history, a history of migrants and absentees, of secrets and silences.  He was, it seemed, glad to let it out at last.

The one thing I’d (naively) not expected to have been so dominant were the Troubles.  I’d always thought of them as specific to Northern Ireland but O’Toole’s memory of his father coming home one day in the early 1970s and saying that it looked like he and his sons would soon be forced to go up north, certain they were on the brink of a war where Irishmen on both sides of the border would be fighting, impressed on me what that level of unrest felt like contained on a small island.  The family had another tense evening in 1972 waiting for O’Toole’s father, a bus conductor, to come home after an IRA bomb exploded near the company canteen and it wasn’t clear who had been killed.  His father was safe but two colleagues died.

It’s moments like that – the family conversations, the memories of certain television programs or exchanges at school – that make this such a vivid and impactful book.  O’Toole does a wonderful job of presenting his country’s history but an even better job of expressing what it was like to live through.

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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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On the basis that done is better than perfect, I thought I’d share some short thoughts on books I read last month.

2022 has been an exhausting year so far, particularly with the war in Ukraine stirring up lots of difficult emotions among Czech family and friends who remembered what it was like when their country was invaded by Russians (with far less deadly results but two further decades of repression).  Between that and the usual work chaos and the first significant easing here of Covid restrictions and ongoing health tests to rule out scary things (result: scary things have been ruled out), it’s all been a bit much and I’ve found myself reaching for lighter and lighter comfort reads.  Thank goodness for books.

Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau (2021) – I kicked April off by finishing this cute Asian rom-com set in Toronto about an actor (Ryan – the default name for handsome Canadian actors as the characters joke) who, preparing to compete on a celebrity baking show, solicits local baker Lindsay into giving him some lessons.  Both have lost parents – Ryan very recently – and I loved how much their relationships with their families were part of the story.

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley (2022 – alternate title The People on Platform Five) – this was an ARC from NetGalley and kept me happily occupied during my flight from Vancouver to Palm Springs at the start of the month (my first plane ride in more than two years!).  I love Pooley’s debut novel, The Authenticity Project, and have read it multiple times since Covid hit so was delighted to find this to be another wonderfully warm story about community and connection.

Here she looks at what happens a group of commuters, startled after an incident on their train one morning, dare to actually speak to one another (Londoners, are you cringing at the thought?).  At the heart of the group is stylish, flamboyant, and unapologetic Iona, who soon sets the example that draws sweet Emmie, helpful Sanjay, bullied Martha, and burnt-out Piers together.  Following them as they help one another and end up changing their own lives over the course of several months made me long for the end of work-from-home and the chance of making lucky, life-changing connections of my own over the morning commute.

This is being released at the end of this month in the UK and early June in North America.

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti (2020) – Caletti was recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush (focused on children’s and YA books) and I’m still making up my mind about her.  This thriller-like novel follows sixteen-year-old Sydney as she leaves her Pacific Northwest boarding school to spend the summer with her actress mother in San Francisco in a mansion by China Beach.  The house is shared with her mother’s new boyfriend, Jake, who, like all men, is suddenly paying Sydney far too much attention that she doesn’t know how to respond to.  There is a body at the end (hence me calling this a thriller) but the focus is on Sydney trying to make sense of how her now adult body is perceived and how she feels about that.  The emotions and confusion ring true but it all feels a bit after-school-special-like.

52 Ways to Walk by Annabel Streets (2022) – such a fun book to dip in and out of!  Streets proposes 52 different inspirations for walkers – one to try each week.  Whether that is walking backwards, at altitude, in the dark, in the rain, while singing, or while staying silent, Streets is full of interesting ideas and, more importantly, all the reasons why its beneficial to give each option a try.  I loved this and am certain other walkers would be equally fascinated.  Annabel Streets also publishes as Annabel Abbs and her recent memoir/group biography Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women is high on my wishlist.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (2022) – an amusing, sweet novel set in the 1960s about a female chemist turned unconventional television cooking show host and unlikely empowerment icon.

French Braid by Anne Tyler (2022) – I always forget how much I like Anne Tyler until I read one of her books again.  This wonderful short novel follows the members of the Garrett family from the 1950s – when April, Lily, and David are children on a family vacation – until the summer of 2020 when they are grandparents dealing with Covid lockdowns.  Tyler pops us in and out of the lives of them, their parents (Robin and Mercy), and their own children.  The result is a novel that feels composed of wonderfully rich short stories, full of incredibly relatable family dynamics and miscommunications.

I especially loved this passage:

What nobody understood about David, with the possible exception of [his wife] Greta, was that he had suffered a very serious loss in his life.  Two losses, in fact.  Two very dear children: Emily and Nicholas.  It was true that these days there happened to be two very dear grown-ups who were also named Emily and Nicholas, but they weren’t the same people.  It was just as if those children had died.  He’d been in mourning ever since.

Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes (2022) – Rachel Walsh is back!  (As are all the other Walshes, which made me remember how much I dislike most of them.)  Rachel’s Holiday is Keyes’ most iconic book and we meet up with Rachel twenty plus years after.  She is now a counsellor at the same addition clinic where she was treated, having moved home to Ireland from New York after splitting from her husband, Luke.  But Luke’s mother has just died and he is home, bringing up questions of why their marriage fell apart and forcing Rachel to face up to what happened.  The genius of Rachel’s Holiday was the revelation of Rachel as an unreliable narrator so to find her unreliable again is not entirely a shock.  Keyes handles it cannily but the overall impact was good, not great.

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997) – I am alarmed to realise that this is the Ibbotson novel I have reread the most over the last few years, though I consider it the weakest of her adult books (see earlier review).  But like all of her books it is such satisfying escapism and there is something about the setting – an eccentric boarding school in a pink schloss on the sunny shore of a Carinthian lake, surrounded by fragrant flowers and staffed by an earnest but largely incompetent group of dreamers – that I find irresistible.  Our Czech hero Marek remains absurd – handsome and good at everything – but I don’t care.  It’s still a delight.

Which Way is Home? by Maria Kiely (2020) – speaking of Czechs (and when am I not, really?), I was terribly intrigued when Constance mentioned this children’s novel in her March reading round up as it follows a family fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1948 (inspired by the author’s mother’s experiences).  My mother left in 1968 but several family members were part of the exodus in 1948 so I was interested to see how Kiely handled it.  The result was disappointing and showed no storytelling skill at all – we hear exactly what Anna, our young heroine, feels without ever seeing her feel it.  It’s the cardinal sin: too much telling and no showing.  The use of punctuation is also confusing inconsistent.  Czech words are used with proper accents but names are presented without the needed accents – very annoying.

Wild Child by Patrick Barkham (2020) – an interesting and deeply personal look at how children relate to and need nature in their lives, blending research with observations of Barkham’s own three children and his experiences volunteering at a local forest school.

Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford (1954) – something I actually managed to review!

Bachelors Galore by Essie Summer (1958) – those who caught this in my “Library Loot” post were deeply entertained by the title – and who wouldn’t be?  Our heroine Marty is emigrating from England to New Zealand when she clashes with Philip Griffiths, who misunderstood a joke he overheard her making and is convinced she is coming out to find one of the fabled rich bachelor farmers the papers are full of.  As per usual with Summers, there’s needless misdirection and silliness but also an enterprising, hardworking heroine and a happy ending.  I especially loved the section where a number of the characters go on holiday to the Marlborough Sounds as this area is on high on my to-visit list when I eventually make it to New Zealand and Summers is so good at beautiful descriptions of the country.

Dedicated by Pete Davis (2021) – a soundly supported plea for people to commit themselves – to people, places and causes – rather than indulge in endless browsing, both to better their own lives and society as a whole.  Definitely a case of preaching to the choir but it’s stayed in my mind as I’ve been reading and watching programs since and thinking about the years people have dedicated to pursuing things they are passionate about (especially true watching the documentary “Navalny” recently on CNN).

Will They, Won’t They? by Portia MacIntosh (2021) – two rom-coms in one month featuring famous actors!  In this case, our heroine is an actress returning home to Yorkshire after her character is killed off on a Game of Thrones-esque show.  She’s soon drawn into family and community life and finds herself headlining the local Christmas panto.  This was on Jo Walton’s March reading list and just as fun as she promised.

To Bring You Joy by Essie Summers (1985) – Monique is gifted a significant amount of money by a dear aunt with the only condition being that Monique use it in a way that will “bring you joy”.  Rather than set out on world travels, she leaves Christchurch for the Banks Peninsula (also high on my to-see list!) to help two old ladies turn their home into a museum of the peninsula’s early French settlers.  After working in antiques for almost a decade, Monique is knowledgeable – and driven by the private knowledge that her dear grandfather was the beloved younger brother of these ladies who ran away after a fight with their father and eventually started a new life in Australia.

There is – of course – a love interest (Eduoard – because everyone in this book has French heritage and if you have French heritage you MUST have a French name.  No exceptions allowed) and too many silly secrets.  The silliness rating was higher than usual here, making it one of my less successful encounters with Summers.

The Blue Bedroom and Other Stories by Rosamunde Pilcher (1985) – I’ve had only unsuccessful experiences with Pilcher’s novels (I consistently want to throw them against walls.  Or perhaps out to sea) but recently picked up A Place Like Home, a collection of her short stories, and was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  That encouraged me to track down this earlier collection, which, ultimately, felt frothier and less memorable but still pleasant.

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Once you’ve proven yourself as a novelist, what do you do next?  Do you turn out novel after novel, perhaps improving, or perhaps churning out forgettable fodder?  Or do you try something entirely different, striking out into the unknown and – to your readers – the unexpected?  I know which sounds like more fun to me.

In 1954, Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford was released to indulgent – and no doubt frustrating for the author – praise from the critics.  With seven novels already behind her, Mitford had a fine reputation but, intoxicated and in love with her new home in Paris, she was eager to write about something other than the romantic trials of the English.  She threw herself into researching Louis XV’s famous mistress and the result is something between the froth of a novel and the impartiality of a biography.

My first encounter with Mitford the biographer was her last book: Frederick the Great.  Published in 1970, it’s a wonderful book, full of colourful anecdotes skillfully threaded through a well-structured and well-researched account of a difficult man’s fascinating life.  From the very first chapter of Madame de Pompadour, it was clear how much Mitford had learned about the art of biography in the period between those two books.

The approach to the codified world of Versailles is, paradoxically, familiar and affectionate.  Individuals are described as dears (or the opposite) in a chatty tone, with Mitford enjoying a good gossip over their foibles despite most of them having been dead for the better part of two hundred years.  She is particularly critical of Louis XV’s queen, a Polish princess who, “though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore.”  Mitford believes “[she] might have played the part of mistress as well as that of wife, if she had had more character.”  Instead, her husband was forced to go find new bedmates and friends to keep him constantly entertained.  The Queen, having given birth to 10 children in the first 12 years of their marriage, seems to have been completely at ease with that – and who (except Mitford) can blame her?

The character of Louis XV is the gap at the center of the book.  He sounds to have been a man of extraordinary energy, thoughtless selfishness, and enormous appetites.  But what actually attracted people to him is less clear.  He suffered immense losses as a child, after which he “retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody every knew much about them for the rest of his life.”  No one woman ever seems to have held his attention sexually – Madame de Pompadour was his chief mistress for a time, but there were others before and after, not to mention the girls of no significance who were procured for a bit of bed play, most never even knowing the identify of their lover.  (Which of course makes Mitford’s criticism of the Queen ever harder to accept.)

But what of Madame de Pompadour herself, a woman who would go down in history for her exquisite taste, her intelligence, and her support for the artists and thinkers that modern France continues to revere?  As a child, a fortune teller predicted she would one day rule the heart of a king and within the family she was then nicknamed Reinette and given all the education and training a king’s mistress would need, however unlikely it seemed that a young bourgeois would ever be picked for such a role.  She grew up, she married, she became a mother…and she met the King.

Mitford paints a very romantic picture of the attraction and whirlwind that kicked off the relationship, with countryside cavorting and masked balls, obvious to the entire court, before she was officially installed in the palace.  She was far from the first mistress but she was the first from outside the court, so a crash course in the bizarre intricacies of Bourbon etiquette was required.  But she found her feet quickly, cunningly (innocently?) made herself appealing to the Queen, and was soon established in the world where she would live for the next twenty years until her early death, firmly first in the King’s affections if not always in his bed.

Indeed, she was, Mitford states, “physically a cold woman.  She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her.”  Since Louis XV seems to have liked nothing more than continual love making, it must have been a great relief when the relationship turned away from the physical, as it did within 5 or 6 years due to her poor health, leaving them as companions.  All Madame de Pompadour’s early training, her talents, and her charms had combined to make her a delightful companion – one who could not be parted with even when the obvious purpose of the relationship had been extinguished.  It was, Mitford notes with some amusement, quite like a normal marriage.

I enjoyed reading this but it felt too much like a romantic biography rather than a true biography to me.  And yet how do you assert the individualism of a woman’s whose goal was to be an appendage?  For most mistresses, the chase, the conquest, and the victory might be the full story.  But I don’t think it was for Madame de Pompadour.  Mitford does look at Pompadour’s championing of Voltaire (always so hard – he did not make life easy for his supporters), her gifts as an actress, her establishing of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, and her involvement with politics during the Seven Years War, but I would love to see how Mitford would have approached this with more experience behind her.  It’s still a very enjoyable book but not as good an example of biography as she would eventually prove capable of.

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For me, the great tragedy of 2021 was the loss of the community garden plots which brought me so much pleasure in 2020.  They were always intended as temporary – developers get a tax break when community gardens use their empty lots while they wait on permits and whatnot – but the permit process went horrifically fast in this case and our lot lasted only one year.  The one time the city approved things quickly, damn them!

My gardening was restricted to a few containers this year but my dreams are never restricted and they are continuously fueled by garden books.  I had been hearing for years how wonderful The Ivington Diaries by Monty Don and finally tracked it down thanks to the inter-library loan system.

I can attest that it is, as promised, wonderful.  Consisting of diary entries written in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Don’s focus roams widely through the garden and his home life.  He is a gifted broadcaster (the only thing more comforting than actually gardening in 2020 was watching Gardener’s World) but he is an even better writer, with a lovely turn of phrase.

Arranged by month, this is the perfect book to dip in and out of as the year passes.  It’s no good trying to write more about it – I loved it, the end – so I’ll leave you instead with a few favourite passages:

“Greening” 12 May 2002:

As May slips in, there is the most astonishing greening of the world.  It shouldn’t surprise me – I’ve been here before nearly fifty times – but every year it shakes me to the core, scrambles the sediment that has silted up over winter and sends me spinning into a green space.  It is like falling in love, like recovering one’s sight.  I suspect that all gardening, all life perhaps, is built up from just a few moments like these.  Not many days in all, not a body of achievement.  Just the dew days each spring when you transcend your lumpen self.  All lyric poetry, all mystical expressions, all the most sublime music strains towards what every leaf does as carelessly each spring as it falls in autumn.

“Onoprodum” 22 June 1997:

I increasingly feel that the secret of a good garden is to choose your spreaders carefully so that you are swamped by loveliness.  I know that this goes against the grain of many gardeners’ buttock-clenching desire to control every flicker of colour and millimetre of growth but there are no transcendental moments to be had down that route.  The garden must teeter on the edge of anarchy to unfold fully, and disaster and joyous success will therefore be separated by a few days or a few square feet of accidental combinations.  The best gardeners hold the centre together by stealth and coercion rather than by strutting their horticultural stuff.

“Roses” 30 June 2002:

One of life’s lesser ironies is that flowers – one of the best and most beautiful things on the planet – are invented daily by people who have the aesthetic judgement of the average town planner on a day off.  And one of the confusing aspects of gardening is that enthusiasm for horticulture can evince itself in fanatical love of a plant, with lives literally devoted to its cultivation, amassing extraordinary depth of knowledge and yet without any development of aesthetic judgement.  It is as though after forty years a great art historian were unable to tell the difference between a Bayswater Road daub and a Matisse and yet knew everything about the provenance of both.

“Cricket” 11 July 1998:

Twelve is a fine age for a boy, an age where sex is not yet a blanket of miserable yet irresistible fog and, short of being able to drive, there is liberty enough to do most things you want.  We live in the country and Adam is a country boy.  His idea of happiness is days riding his mountain bike in the fields and woods with friends.  Always with friends.  He does things alone solely in order to be better at doing them when he sees his friends again.  As his nearest one lives five miles away, this means he can only see them if I drive him or their parents drive them.  The greatest service I can offer this holiday is to be a cross between a twenty-four-hour taxi service and a chauffeur with access to unlimited petty cash and chocolate.  Actually the cash side of things get not so petty as soon as mountain bikes enter the equation, so a chauffeur brilliantly working the futures market from the seat of the waiting vehicle, equipped with a fridge for chocolate, would be best.

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I am always ready for a tale of travel adventures, especially after two years without any of my own.  When I stumbled across Our Trip Around the World by Renate Belczyk from the small publisher Rocky Mountain Books I wasn’t sure what I was picking up but it turned out to be the greatest journey I’ve come across in some time.

In 1955, Renate and Sigrid, young women in their early twenties, left their home in Germany and spent the next three years travelling the world as true adventurers.  They learned to rock climb in Mexico; hiked, canoed and skied in Canada; took up the suggestion from Japanese sailors that they visit their country, where they were gifted scooters and treated as minor celebrities; visited the Himalayas; explored India; saw the pyramids of Egypt; fell in love with Turkey; toured the Greek islands; and returned home – finally – via Yugoslavia and Austria.

The kindness and hospitality Renate and Sigrid encountered are unimaginable now in the age of mass tourism but enviable.  I think all travellers (especially those who think of themselves as “travellers” and would shudder to be called “tourists”) are looking for these personal encounters, with people who may giggle or stare at you but are still happy to give you a meal or a place to stay, who enjoy the novelty of having a stranger about as much as the stranger enjoys the novelty of being there.  This is harder and harder to find in the world.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the book is how unexpectedly active Renate and Sigrid’s travels were.  When I think of young women travelling, the 1920s adventures chronicled in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay come to mind – high spirited but ladylike travellers, with trunks and hats and an outfit for every occasion.  There were certainly still many travelling like that in the 1950s, but not Renate and Sigrid whose lives seem dominated by outdoor sports and rugged endeavours.  I can’t imagine their proper counterparts embracing new cultures and languages with the same enthusiasm, nor being as happy to work hard to afford their fun.  It’s refreshing to have this perspective and far more relatable than ones I’ve come across before.

With any book about female travel, I do wonder about safety issues.  I think their novelty factor afforded them some protection (as, I’d assume, did their white skin) from violence and harassment, but not entirely.  They camped for much of their journey and there were a few instances of people trying to get in – memorably, when one hand slipped through into the tent Renate bit it.  The hand – and its owner – quickly retreated.

The book is illustrated with photographs, which makes everything wonderfully real, but even without them this is one journey that is unforgettable.

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Brevity requires the sort of genius I do not have, which makes me all the more admiring when I come across it.  It is hard enough to do in fiction, where the author controls all, but to do it in biography, as in A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicola Shulman, is extraordinary.

A Rage for Rock Gardening tells, in a brief 120 pages, the life story of Reginald Farrer.  An author, gardener, and plant hunter, I’ve come across mentions of Farrer and this book repeatedly in Ursula Buchan’s writings and been intrigued.  Farrer was a member of John Buchan’s Oxford circle, alongside Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert.  For the most part, this group was brilliant and charismatic – with Farrer as the exception. Farrer hung on, determined to prove himself and equally determined to attract the attention and affection of Aubrey Herbert, whom he considered “the personification of joy”.  He would manage one but not the other.

While Asquith’s combination of beauty, brilliance, and polish was no doubt alluring, it is perhaps telling that Farrer’s focus was Herbert, a “dishevelled boy, half-blind, not altogether beautiful”.  Though Herbert would go on to be a hero of the Gallipoli campaign, a champion of Albanians (who twice offered him their throne) and the inspiration for John Buchan’s Greenmantle, he must have seemed at least somewhat relatable to the ugly, dwarfish Farrer.  Born with a cleft palate, Farrer had been educated at home until coming to Oxford due to his speech impediment, fussed over continuously through bouts of ill health by his mother.  Which made him all the more determined to live once he was free in the world.

Upon graduation, he set out for Asia with Herbert, who was taking up an attaché role in Tokyo.  Already keenly interested in gardening, Farrer had the time to explore and his interest in oriental plants would be a passion that drove him for the rest of his life, alongside his enthusiasm for alpine gardens.  Back home, he began a successful career as a garden writer, driving the huge popularity of rock gardens and introducing a new, more personal style of garden writing.  And he would keep returning to Asia as a plant hunter, tramping through the wilds of the Himalayas in search of new alpine specimens, until he died of an illness there at the age of only forty.

Farrer was a complex and troubled soul, never content and never able to stop competing with those he loved.  Shulman manages to distill the essence of his life and his relationships into this slim volume without it ever feeling rushed.  She cannot answer every question, but it intrigues you to want to learn more.  Sadly for Farrer though, it is his extraordinary peers who I longed to learn more about.  Even in his own biography, he is overshadowed by the men he admired, loved, and envied in equal measure.

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Travel is one of my chief pleasures.  I am single, financially independent, and can mangle several languages well enough to be understood.  The world is my oyster.  Except when it’s not.

It’s been over two years now since I was last overseas and while it has been VERY exciting to get to travel a little more this year, I’m still sticking close to home and following government advice to avoid non-essential foreign travel.  I have yet to find any essential excuses.

This leaves me with plenty of beautiful places to still explore but there is only so much pleasure to be got from trees and mountains and ocean.  This is where books come in.

Armchair travel is one of the finest forms of travel.  It is accessible and affordable, requires little planning and leaves you with no jet lag.  Ideal really at any time but especially during Covid.

And one of the chief pleasures of armchair travel is that it lets you travel through time – an experience no airline or cruise ship can match.

I travelled back in time recently via Travels by Jan Morris, a collection of essays published in 1976, making this an ideal choice for this week’s 1976 Club.  Morris was by then already a well-established travel writer and this was her first book following the very personal Conundrum (now available as a Slightly Foxed edition), a memoir of her transition from James Morris to Jan Morris.  While Morris’ personality is a vital part of these essays, her gender is not – something that was probably reassuring to her conservative readers who weren’t quite yet done processing their feelings about the change.

The opening essay – “The Best Travelled Man in the World: the example of Ibn Batuta” – was to me the best one in the collection.  In considering the 14th century traveller, Morris captures the romance and adventure that call all travellers – and all readers of travel writing.  We all long to see something that is truly new but none of us will ever experience it the way Ibn Batuta did.  On a similar biographical bent there is “A Profitable Exile”, about nabobs who went to India to gain fortunes and ill-health.

“Through My Guide-Books” is also a delight, as Morris walks us through her collection of guidebooks and picks out some timeless advice:

The heyday of the guide-book was the nineteenth century, when steam had made travel relatively easy, but the average tourist was still an educated person, able to appreciate Murray’s donnish quirks or Baedeker’s obscurer allusions to the principles of Gothic fenestration.  There are felicities, of course, to be found both in earlier and in later examples.  My favourite guide-book chapter, on the whole, is Chapter XII of Horrebow’s Iceland (1758), which is entitled “Concerning Owls in Iceland”, and which consists in its entirety of one phrase: “There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.”  The guide-book advice I most admire is given by E.M. Forster in his Alexandria (1922) – “The best way to see it is to wander aimlessly about” – while one could hardly improve the opening to Chapter IV of Mrs. R.L. Devonshire’s Rambles in Cairo (1931): “Of all the medieval rulers of Egypt, Saladin alone enjoys the privilege of being remembered by Western readers.”

The specific portraits of places – Dublin, Bath, Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Singapore, and Hong Kong – were less successful for me, though the Asian destinations were clearly written about with more engagement and enthusiasm.  The piece about Hong Kong is quite long and, having just put down Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera to read this, the colonial mindset felt a bit jarring.  It is absolutely what one should expect of Morris (indeed, Sanghera refers to Morris’ Pax Brittanica history of the British Empire in Empireland) but there are comments about the British rulers and the obedient Chinese residents that sit uncomfortably when reading today.

And then there is “On the Confederation Trail”, about Morris’ experience taking the train from Toronto to Calgary.  The entire essay reads like a pat on the head – kind but dismissive, which is a pretty accurate synopsis of how Canada was treated circa 1976.  Morris doesn’t show any particular admiration for Canada – not the way she delights in the bustle and energy of Hong Kong, for example – but can admit it has its good points:

The twentieth century, Canadians had been told, would be Canada’s, but they did not interpret this prophecy in any bombastic sense.  They would be rich, but they would be good.  They would be American in vivacity and inventiveness, but British in style and conscience.

It’s hard to be Canada: people are always saying nice things about you, just never with much enthusiasm.

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