Queen Victoria, the Matchmaking Grandmother

For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.

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Beauty by Raphael Selbourne

Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty is captivating. I loved this novel and resented all interruptions, particularly during the last 100 pages or so.

Set in Wolverhampton, a city in central England, Beauty tells the story of Beauty, a young, abused Bengali Muslim woman, trapped in a miserable and threatening family. Beauty’s gradual understanding of the non-Muslim world and her personal transformation beginwhen she is forced to participate in job training in order to preserve her state benefits. Suddenly thrust into a new, confusing environment while still being pummeled at home is confusing and frightening, but Beauty takes note of the outside world and ultimately opts to take some risk. Two confused and immature English men show up to help her at this time of great crisis in her life. Other strangers are not so kind, and then there deeply flawed people who nonetheless step up to the plate.

That’s the premise of those wonderful novel. There are characters with unsuspected depth and courage, and there are some dreadful people on the other end of the spectrum. Their interactions set a fine and highly interesting pace for this book. At the center is Beauty, a damaged young woman raised to fear and condemn everything outside her family’s milieu. But, under immense pressure, she observes everything through increasingly interested eyes. The process is fascinating. Selbourne has created a unique character and a very rich story.

I highly recommend this book.

Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn

I had forgotten how wonderful Barbara Pym is! Quartet in Autumn, oddly enough, seems to have been a comeback novel after Pym had gone unpublished for 15 years. Whatever the back story, Quartet in Autumn reveals and then weaves together the lives of four oldish co-workers as they face the uncertainties of retirement, financial difficulties and uncertain health. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman at first seem as uneventful and unremarkable as their names, but Pym carefully introduces bits and pieces of their past and present lives. This is not an elderly rom-com, but it is the story of four idiosyncratic older adults who live on their own and who don’t appear to have much excitement in their lives. They know each other and their foibles through working together, and a loyalty develops among them. As it happens they are not entirely on their own. The way they help each other and try to understand each other makes for a warm, thoughtful book.

I am so glad I read it, and I highly recommend it!

An Iranian Woman’s Memoir and the Battle against the Compulsory Hijab

In her passionate memoir, The Wind in My Hair – My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad lays out her feelings about the war against women in Iran and recounts her efforts to fight it. Alinejad is a journalist, blogger and broadcaster, as well as the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement.

This book has many things going for it. Alinejad’s recounting of her childhood and teenage years is like nothing a Westerner could imagine. Her family is conservative; her father supports the repressive regime. She rebels. Alinejad spends some time in jail as a result of a youthful protest journal. In short order she finds she is pregnant, marries the baby’s father, has a son and then gets divorced, which results in her loss of the custody of her son. In many ways all this drama is liberating — society already regards her as a hopeless pariah, so why not speak and do what she wants to do?

Alinejad is sort of a hustler, in the best sense of the word. Lacking even a high school diploma, she quickly learns how to make a living and become a successful writer, who is basically just this side of going to prison for her provocative columns. Along the way, she meets many of the politicians who are running Iran. Ultimately, she flees Iran, one step ahead of being arrested. Landing in Britain, she is scarcely a helpless refugee. She is more of a frenetic whirlwind: she earns a university degree, she raises her son once he joins her, she writes for various outlets, blogs, does radio programs and serves as a provocative cheerleader for protest within Iran. Indeed, her story illustrates the power of Facebook and social media, in general. When no one is buying her material, she blogs and posts. Basically she drives the regime in Iran crazy.

For Alinejad, Iran’s compulsory hijab policy becomes the catalyst for protest. She lays out very clearly the ways in which Iran keeps women down and encourages women in Iran to protest. She also devotes a lot of time to tracking and reporting on the tortures and deaths of protestors, so that these people are not forgotten. She also consistently supports the choice of women like her mother who want to wear the hijab. In fact her respect for her mother and her mother’s savvy approach to life grounds Alinejad.

I loved this book, because it sets out, with all its warts and a certain amount of confusion, how this impassioned, articulate woman feels about Iran and what it is doing to its people. Alinejad clearly falls into the category of people who aren’t constrained by social norms or the perils of non-compliance. She is comfortable setting her own path. At times that may seem selfish or even annoying and there is the exile’s perennial dilemma of urging those still in her country to engage in political action and thereby endanger themselves. She is aware of these things, but moves on and sees herself as a source of inspiration for people in Iran. She misses Iran and her family and has no expectation of returning any time soon.

I recommend this book because it tells a great story and it provides a passionate primary source for what has gone on in Iran.

The World Continues to Exist Only by the Virtue of a Few Righteous People

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life recounts his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust and then examines his adult reflections upon the experience and upon the family he lost. This is a beautiful book that slowly examines how the author recalls his experiences and what memory has come to mean to him.

Appelfeld’s Holocaust began at the age of 7 when he and his parents entered the ghetto in Czernowitz, Romania. His mother was murdered, and then he and his father embarked upon a long, forced march to a camp. Ultimately, Appelfeld lost his father and escaped front he camp. He somehow survived the war, made his way to Italy and then arrived in Israel, on his own at the age of 14. He stayed in Israel where he had a very successful writing career until he died earlier this year (January 14, 2018).

The Story of a Life is not Appelfeld’s first book about the Holocaust and his experiences. Post war, he was criticized for not simply laying down the facts. His somewhat mystical approach apparently drew considerable criticism. I found Appelfeld’s personal approach very moving and understandable on an emotional level. Truly there is a place for an unlimited number of approaches to the Holocaust. The Story of a Life enhances our understanding and provides a framework for how a survivor might live with the loss and how he might choose to remember it and think about it. At some level, what has happened has to encompass more than unspeakable, horrible facts and cruelties.

Several things stand out in this memoir. Appelfeld profound losses included the loss o of education. He was on his own and had no education from the time he was 7 until he landed in Israel at 14. His experiences in the early days of Israel were a mixed bag. His time in the youth village and tending to fruit trees seemed to have helped with his healing process. He also benefited form the kindness and attention of at least one established Israeli writer and a nurturing tutelage of a professor of Yiddish. On the other hand, he was alone and found the new Israelis often abrupt and uncaring.

There is little bitterness in this book. Appelfeld has moved on to where he recognizes and treasures the kindnesses, big and small, he has received in his life. According to his own survey and reckoning, “every person I knew who was saved during the war was saved solely by the grace of someone who, at a time of great danger, extended a hand to him.” Ultimately, Appelfeld feels immense gratitude for how he has been able to recover “the world I had left behind.”

Remarkably, Appelfeld and his father were reunited in Israel after the war, long after Appelfeld had thought his father was dead. Appelfeld never felt able to write about that wonderful experience, and it seems fitting for him to treasure it and hold it dear.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is short, but deserves a slow, careful read.

In this book, Appelfeld writes about his bewilderment at the absence of his parents and the difficulties and cruelties he suffered while avoiding capture. One of his losses was that of education. His stopped at First Grade, and he got no other education until he reached Israel after the war. His struggles to learn Hebrew and write in that language

Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!

Dance to the Piper — Agnes DeMille’s Remarkable Account of How She Invented Herself as a Unique Dancer and Choreographer

Agnes DeMille, the amazing choreographer of Oklahoma, Rodeo and many other ballets and dances, wrote a number of memoirs, the first of which is Dance to the Piper. In this first installment of the story of her life, DeMille recounts growing up in early Hollywood as a member of an early and highly renowned motion picture dynasty, headed by her uncle Cecil B. DeMille. She writes movingly of her early fascination with dance and her watching and meeting the great Anna Pavlova, when DeMille was a child and Pavlova was at the end of her career. DeMille’s family pushed her in many ways but was downright hostile to her dancing aspirations.

DeMille was a pioneer. She forged a career doing what she really wanted to do. There were no roadmaps for an aspiring dancer born in 1895. Indeed, in the face of family opposition, a late and sporadic dance education and something less than a classic ballet dancer’s body, it is bewildering to read about how DeMille created her career. It wasn’t like today where there are ballet schools everywhere and a significant number of ballet companies are scattered across the United States. DeMille wanted to dance and created dances for herself, in part because she saw no alternative.

DeMille’s writing is clear and unsentimental. She manages to write a story about herself and her projects without coming across as an obnoxious braggart. She sees the humor of her failed efforts and the sleezy producers and impresarios determined to fleece her. She also acknowledges people such as Martha Graham, who gave her sage advice. The backstory to this brilliant memoir is that DeMille pretty much knew everyone in dance during the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

DeMille acknowledges her family’s failings (and strengths) and then moves on. Her gift is to appreciate what her family has given her whilst still recognizing where and how she feels her family fell short. Ultimately, DeMille’s gratitude toward her family overpowers the negative and is very moving.

Anna George DeMille, Agnes DeMille’s mother, is a fascinating side story throughout the memoir. She transforms from being a successful Hollywood wife actively trying to sabotage her daughter’s dance aspirations to becoming a stunned and shattered divorcée. Ultimately Anna is her daughter’s biggest booster, and one can see see that her ultimate gift to her daughter was instilling in Agnes the confidence and determination that took her to greatness.

If you love dance and dance history, this book is a must. Even if you aren’t a big dance fan, this is a great story of someone who went from having an unformed idea of simply wanting to dance and to create dance to blasting through the conventions of her day and making a huge contribution to the dance world.

A Lucky Child — A Moving Holocaust Memoir from the Point of View of a Child Survivor

This is a particularly compelling Holocaust memoir because the author has written it as he perceived it as a child. While the author acknowledges that his memory is imperfect and that it is too late to consult the adults witnesses to his story, this book does a remarkable job of showing what it meant to somehow make it through the Holocaust as a young boy.

Thomas Buergenthal has had a significant career as the American judge on the International Court of Justice and as a professor of international law. In many ways those accomplishments pale in comparison to the remarkable story of his surviving the Holocaust as a child. In A Lucky Child — A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Buergenthal recounts the remarkable story of how he made it through the Holocaust. Since he experienced the Holocaust as a child who was frequently on his own, Buergenthal didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what was happening or why. He just encountered events as they happened and somehow managed to survive. He went from being a likely spoiled only child in very comfortable circumstances to being hunted and ultimately separated from his parents. Fortunately he picked up just enough street smarts and made some lucky choices at the right time. And, he had some courageous adults who stepped up the plate and looked out for him at opportune times.

All in all, it is an amazing and staggering story that makes you ache for the author and his family and for all the children who weren’t so lucky.

What I am Reading Now

I am always in the middle of ten or more books, and some of the ones I am reading now are worth mentioning. In no particular order, these are some of the books I am reading now:

1. Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar (a fun gift from my sister, this little historical gem cheerfully provides information on some unfortunate (or worse) event that occurred on every day of the year; I’ve been reading it day by day this year, and it is a fine way to start the day)

2. She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw (this British mystery is set in the London of the Beatles and combines a depressed down-on-his-luck police detective who is actually appealing with an intriguing murder and lots of comic characters; it is particularly interesting because of the sexist climate and the probationary female constable who becomes a major player; I am really enjoying it)

3. Dance to the Piper by Agnes De Mille (a famous memoir by the dancer and choreographer, who also happened to be the niece of Cecil B DeMille and who grew up in early Hollywood; I am loving the story of her youth and her commentary on dance as an art form and as a profession)

4. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (a non-fiction account of President James Garfield and the man who assassinated him; this isn’t as funny as Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, but it has similar appeal; I am learning a lot about Garfield and really like the man; I am reading this because it was selected by my book club, and I’m sorry I’ll be missing the meeting that discusses it)

5. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirin (a creepy Japanese thriller with a seemingly amoral narrator; oddly intriguing)

6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (I came to Patchett only recently, and I’m really loving this novel)

7. The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (after avoiding Allende for years because I didn’t like one of her first novels, I am really enjoying this novel so far)

8. Blood in the Water — The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (this is a lengthy, harrowing accounting of the Attica prison uprising in 1971; there are no heroes thus far, but there are many people who are behaving very badly; until I started reading this book I hadn’t realized and had probably to some extent forgotten all the factors that led to this disaster where an untrained mob of guards, state troupers and others brutally put down a prison takeover and then exacted a horrifying and highly racist revenge; this is an important book and we all need to be on top of this story because these problems continue and there will be similar disasters unless we start thinking and taking intelligent action)

9. Becoming Ms. Burton by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (this is a compelling and well-told memoir of Susan Burton, a former drug addict who spent many years in the criminal justice system until she got clean and started being part of the solution; this is an important contribution to our thinking about ways to help troubled people instead of just locking them up again and again)

10. Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking

Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars

Linda Porter’s Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars tells the saga of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria, and their many children, including future kings Charles II and James II. Nearly 400 years later, it is difficult to fathom how this close family functioned at all once the Revolution hit. Family members were spread across Britain and the Continent. Communication was difficult, both because of distance and military restrictions. The parents and their children were often compelled to act on their own initiative and frequently under straightened financial circumstances. The children were young — the two eldest sons were in their early teens — when the king’s conflicts started, and the battling lasted for years. Two of the younger children were held captive in England for years, and of course the Charles I also was ultimately captured and executed. Looking back it seems bizarre that the King seemed never to have fully assessed his peril or what the consequences might be if he failed on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Yet he was cursed with his own implacable sense of his own prerogative and seemingly had no one to provide him with realistic political advice. The Queen had managed to escape to France, her homeland, and spent her time trying to find allies and funding for the her husband. Together, she and the King might have been able to reach a less gruesome conclusion, but then again her Catholicism was one of the major reasons for the family’s unpopularity.

What happened was a tragedy for this family that somehow remained close in an era when royal parents and their children had little ordinary contact or apparent affection for one another. On the eve of his execution the King was allowed time with two of his youngest children, and the tenderness of those meetings is heartbreaking, all these years later. Those two children died, but four of their siblings lived to adulthood, with much of their time spent in France and the Netherlands before the two older brother returned to England after the Restoration. It was an oddly international family, searching for allies and coming together and then separating because of circumstances time and again. For the most part, their strategically arranged marriages afforded the children little happiness, although Charles I and Henrietta Maria, ultimately seemed to have loved each other.

This book’s strength is its portrayals of Charles I and his family, coupled with a useful history of the English Revolution and a healthy injection of the power politics of that era