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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

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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Late last year, I picked up The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady, found it entirely absorbing and enjoyable, and then said absolutely nothing about it.  But the delight I had reading it hasn’t faded so, more than eight months after finishing it, let me enthuse about it (and give thanks that I took such detailed notes while reading).

Rady has a written a wonderful, accessible introduction to an unwieldy dynasty.  Covering almost a thousand years, he follows the Habsburgs from their roots in Switzerland through to the collapse of the by-then Vienna-based empire in 1918, racing through the centuries with colourful anecdotes and his own strong opinions. 

My grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary under its final ruler.  My grandmother, a few years later in the same region, was born into a democracy that her father and his friends had dreamed and worked towards for years.  To say that family attitudes towards the empire were – and are – complicated is an understatement.  It’s a common story for many Central and Eastern European countries.  Repression allowed for tolerance, peace was bought with violence, power was rewarded with a strange, resentful type of love.  The empire tempered tensions between nations and ethnic groups but left them simmering.  Whatever loyalty there was to Vienna did not extend to the other peoples of the empire, which led to a rather messy last century.

But the story begins long before the glory days of the Habsburg Empire – before they led the Holy Roman Empire, before they ruled Spain and had rich territories spanning the globe, before Maria Theresia wielded enlightened absolutism and used her children as pawns for dynastic marriages.  It begins modestly in Switzerland, with a noble family consolidating and expanding its power and getting some very lucky breaks along the way.  As we pass through each generation, Rady does an excellent job contextualizing their achievements and advancements in relation to others.  The key to success – especially in the early years – seems to be staying alive.  Much easier to consolidate power when rival families simply peter out.

Predictably, things are most exciting once the Habsburgs reach the heights of their extraordinary power.  Rady details their foibles (many) but also their contributions: how their patronage contributed to great advancements in scientific knowledge and in the creation of timeless art. 

Eras of excess also make for the best anecdotes.  There was something ridiculously noteworthy in most chapters (the Habsburg reputation for madness while simplistic is definitely not unfounded – there are some true wackos in that family tree) but I especially enjoyed a few that had nothing to do with the family itself.  For instance, to highlight the waning power of the Catholic church during the 16th Century, Rady shares this gem:

…in the Tyrol discipline collapsed, with the nuns of Sonnenburg drinking and dining in the local taverns and riding out at night to the homes of noblemen.  Even so, the Sonnenburg convent was rated by visiting clergy at the time as ‘not as bad as others’.

And even amidst the other excesses of the 17th Century, the appearance during “the largest cavalry charge in history” of these Poles during the Battle for Vienna must have struck the opposing Ottomans as unnecessarily dramatic:

At the head of eighteen-thousand horsemen rode [King John] Sobieski’s Polish lancers, from whose armour projected wings made of eagle and ostrich feathers that keened in the wind.

What an entrance that must have been!

Rady is unintimidated by his subjects and is free with his criticisms, especially by the time we reach the 19th century.  I’m not convinced they are always fair but they are undoubtedly well-researched and well articulated.  Even when I don’t agree with Rady, I’m intrigued by his opinions and the way he positions things.  But I feel slightly less generous when I consider that this might be the only book that some people read about the Habsburgs.  Rady is particularly harsh towards Franz Josef, with his love of bureaucracy of protocol, and unforgiving of him for losing Lombardy, Venice and the German Confederation in less than 20 years.  This is one point where I would have appreciated Rady contextualizing more as the nationalist sentiment among Germans and Italians at this time surely was a stronger force than a young ruler’s inexperience. 

For all the criticisms of the Habsburgs, for all the resentments of their rule and complexities of their empire, Rady’s conclusion, as he considers the last century without them, is one I cannot argue with:

Over more than nine centuries the Habsburgs produced simpletons and visionaries, dabblers in magic and freemasonry, fanatics in religion, rulers committed to the welfare of their peoples, patrons of art and champions of science, and builders of great palaces and churches.  Some Habsburgs were dedicated to peace, while others embarked upon fruitless wars.  Even so, as the politics of Central Europe continues to sour, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that…a Habsburg would have done no worse.

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Though the independent woman wasn’t yet a norm in 1936, there were certainly more of them than ever before and so the success that year of Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis should be no surprise.  Written for “extra women” everywhere – but primarily appropriate for New Yorkers, or widows and stenographers across America longing to think of themselves as cosmopolitan New Yorkers – Hillis confidently guides her flock towards achieving enjoyable, fulfilling lives.  It is easy to be swept away by her energy and conviction and there are worse people to be led by – the better part of a century later her advice is still largely applicable and deeply sensible.

Hillis knew her audience: some were young women excitedly starting careers and still anticipating romantic resolutions but many were older, tired, sometimes widowed or divorced, and unsettled in a society that took it for granted that a woman needed a man to have a “full” life.  Hillis is frank about this.  Yes, you will be an inconvenience to your married friends without a man.  Yes, you may not be wanted at dinner parties or bridge games without a partner.  You are inconvenient but, in this, you are not special:

It is a good idea, first of all, to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.  This point of view has been experienced by every individual the world over at one time or another, except perhaps those who will experience it next year.

This is what I love most about Hillis: she is funny and practical but most of all she is frank. 

Hillis tries to make her readers see the opportunities they have.  They can live graciously without having to be at another’s beck and call!  They can have true independence, to do what they like when they like it!  They can devote themselves to their passions – and Hillis is a great believer in having these – without inconveniencing anyone else!  They can nurture interesting groups of friends, be part of the social whirlwind, and retire to perfect peace when they want it at home.  There are joys to living alone, you just need to be intelligent enough to see them and it is this core message that remains absolutely true today: whatever your circumstances, it is up to you to turn them into something you like:

You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly.  Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

Across twelve short chapters, Hillis guides her readers through all they need to know about living alone in style and, most entertainingly, illustrates each chapter with case studies of women who have either excelled or failed miserably.  She addresses how to create a beautiful home on a budget, how to stock a liquor cabinet, how to make friends (this chapter remains particularly valuable), how to spend your leisure time (another timeless section), how to make your home a place you want to spend time in, and, very frankly, how to handle the question of men.  Hillis does not assume all her readers will live as nuns and she provides practical, sisterly advice for their consideration:

Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty.  Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently, with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you.

The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.  You’ll hate the shabby end of romance, and you’ll detest missing it altogether.

If she is determinedly realistic in her musings on sex, she saves her romanticising for the vision of how women should conduct themselves while alone:

…a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic.  The notion that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you,’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.

Anyone who can sustain this has my congratulations.  I violated many, many, many of Hillis’ dictates when I lived alone and I am sure my morale would have been much higher if I’d followed them – but then my circumstances felt far removed from the case studies she references.  I was neither living in a charmingly decorated studio apartment nor, in my more generous surroundings, did I have a helpful maid or daily cleaner to come in, whisk away the mess, and serve me tea in bed.  Clearly there were oversights and I shall do better next time. 

Despite her belief in pampering yourself, Hillis is extremely practical on the question of money – she has endless suggestions for cheap entertainments in NYC, ideas for ways to meet people, and never, ever believes that money is the solution.  Money cannot buy you taste or happiness and it is far more fun, she assures us, to live well on what you have than to try to project a level of wealth your paycheque can’t support.  Wit, ingenuity and energy are the answer to living well, not a chequebook.  Hillis had so much good advice to share on this topic that her next book – Bubbly on Your Budget – was devoted to it and should not be missed.

While the case studies can tend to hilarious extremes, the core advice of Live Alone and Like It is grounded, practical and essentially timeless.  And written in Hillis’ breezy, forceful style it is irresistible.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for organizing the 1936 Club this week and providing the perfect excuse for me to finally read this after so many years of planning to!

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If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

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In a year full of comfort reads, Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean made quite a change.  It’s about as far from comforting as you can get and is as urgent and important as it is upsetting.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, MacLean set out across the newly opened East.  Thirty years later, he follows his journey in reverse, from Russia through the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to the UK, trying to make sense of how the hope and optimism he saw on his original journey has led to the corruption, authoritarianism, and exploitation rampant in Eastern Europe today.

Russia is, of course, at the heart of it all.  MacLean begins his journey there and his writing on it is superb, though the anecdotes he shares would hardly be credible were they from any other country.  With oligarchs, illegal immigrants, and hackers, he glimpses the new Russia, which looks disarmingly familiar to the old.  Its simplistic narratives about its history help fuel Putin’s mythologized version of the 20th Century, and kitschy celebrations are held for the glorious victories of the Second World War:

Beyond the billboard was the Night Watch festival ground.  Here every summer the notorious motorcycle gang re-enacted the Second World War.  In pyrotechnic fantasies and high-octane motorcycle stunts, ‘heroic’ Red Army bikers battled ‘heartless’ Wehrmacht BMW riders before taking on goose-stepping ‘pro-Western’ demonstrators.  In last year’s performance the Statue of Liberty even made an appearance, spewing a fiery retch of dollars ‘to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples.’

The flip side of this is the pointed erasure of Soviet crimes from the history books.  While other nations have worked to face their pasts, Russia has chosen to ignore it.  As MacLean says, “few Russians accept that past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed for the psychic health of a society”.    Attempts are made by volunteers to raise awareness, in the belief that these events must be acknowledged so that future generations can learn from them – but that seems to be exactly what Putin wants to avoid.  How much easier to focus on a proud history as a nation of victors.

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed and not too naïve about current affairs, but at times I feel like I could not keep up with all of the threats posed by Russia.  The most chilling – perhaps because it was the one I was least aware of – was Russia’s ability to use human trafficking as a weapon against the EU:

Russia’s 1,300-mile-long northern frontier with Norway and Finland is among the country’s most strategic, guarded by the army, the KGB and the Border Service.  Along its length nothing happens without Moscow’s approval.  They Kremlin alone decides which roads to open and close in the heavily militarized region.

…No proof existed of the involvement of the Russian state, yet – immediately after Helsinki had voiced support for NATO – some 1,500 refugees were dispatched across its border as a warning.  The Kremlin wanted to remind the Finns that over eleven million foreigners lived on Russian territory, a vast pool of potential migrants who could be used to flood Europe.

Moving to Hungary, MacLean finds a sadder land.  Russia may be sinister but it is bold and confident and powerful.  Hungary, so hopeful in its new independence on MacLean’s original journey, has walked a darker path.  The country struggled to adjust to capitalism and while some succeeded, many were left behind to struggle:

In the communist years everyone had a job.  Everyone had a roof over their head.  ‘Workers pretended to work and the authorities pretended to pay them’ was a well-worn cliché, meant as a joke, yet it contained a grain of truth.  But the joke vanished with the Wall.  In the early 1990s workers’ hostels were closed, along with redundant factories, throwing tens of thousands onto the street.  Many tried their luck at small start-ups, opening video-rental shops, nail parlours or a corner grocery, losing everything when their enterprises failed.  They left their villages and towns in shame, escaping bad debts, joining the exodus to the capital.

It is no wonder that these people, left with nothing and with no support, long for certainty while trusting no one.  Which is how they ended up with their current authoritarian government, to the distress of MacLean’s old liberal friends:

‘Remember what I told you: Hungary placed its faith in the losers of every war since the sixteenth century.  This twenty-first century will be no exception.’  Alajos said in toast: ‘To a once hopeful Hungary.  Long may we mourn her death.’

Things are no better in Poland, where MacLean finds himself losing patience during a conversation with several thirty-something men who work in the country’s increasingly state-controlled media:

‘Do you fear Poland becoming a one-party state?’ I asked them.

‘The real question is, do we need an opposition?’ replied the American, almost impressive in his complete sincerity.  ‘There are such diverse opinions in the PiS.’

‘And what about the party’s tolerance of the far right?’ I said…

‘Our strength keeps them out of power.’

‘As in Berlin in 1933?’

Across all of these countries, MacLean sees lies being presented at the truth, myths obscuring more complicated realities, the complicated being passed by in favour of the simplistic.  How easy it is to guide countries once their people are motivated only by fear and pride.  But he returns home sadder still to see signs of the same behaviour at home: “How could the English – a people raised in a stable, peaceful and prosperous society with centuries of democracy and freedom – have swallowed the vapid promises of restored glory?  How could they – we – have allowed ourselves to be played like puppets?”

How indeed?

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