Review Roundup

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Winter King by Thomas Penn
This is a special book not only because it was a fascinating, vivid work of history but because it is also the first time I've "read" an audiobook. I thought I would give it a shot since I have access to hundreds of audiobooks through my elibrary and there are many day to day scenarios when I can listen but not read - crammed in on the Metro every morning, while cleaning my apartment or cooking dinner. I realized that audiobooks make these mundane tasks much more fun and this was a perfect first read - Penn has a great ear for the humor and the language of that time. He also writes in such a way that makes the pagentry and political machinations not only come alive but that made me realize their vital role in the monarchy's survival. I really appreciated that he treated the events of Henry's reign not as predetermined steps but as part of a larger, more compelling story, the link between Medieval England and the beginnings of empire during his granddaughter Elizabeth's reign.   Fans of Wolf Hall should definitely pick this one up - Penn nails that same tone that makes far-off times as immediate as today's headlines. 
Source: Library Audiobook

The Memory of Midnight by Pamela Hartshorne
Wow! This book sure left a bad taste in my mouth. If I hadn't gone to the trouble of buying it from a UK bookseller and having it shipped to the US, I probably would not have finished it. What's odd is that I really enjoyed the author's first book Time's Echo, which has similar themes and structure: a troubled young woman in the present day begins experiencing the life of another troubled young woman in Elizabethan York. Where Time's Echo managed to overcome some of the predictabilities of the time-slip genre, Midnight hits all of them. I could have dealt with that except that the book also a strong focus on sadistic violence that was way too graphic for me and made the book a chore to read. 
Source: Purchase

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
Oh the Maisie Dobbs series - I've had my ups and downs with you. I devoured the first few books in the series set in post WWI-London and following a working-class nurse as she grows up and into owning her own detective business. Then, somewhere around the fifth or sixth book, Maisie started to become tiresome, the same themes repeated and I began to space out my readings. There were still bright spots but by the time I reached this one - the tenth entry in the series - I was ready to see Maisie's story reach some sort of conclusion and it does. The mystery here - about a young Indian woman murdered in London - takes second place to the story of Masie's growing dissatisfaction with her life. No one writes characters like Winspear but here it's clear that she is looking for a break from the formula and that Maisie will follow. Fortunately, I've already read Winspear's first stand-alone novel that comes out later this year and it's clear that the freedom has re-invigorated her writing. 
Source: Advance galley from publisher (with apologies for the late review!)

Sochi Olympics Reading List

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

If you can't get enough of the Olympic spirit......
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
If Jesse Owens is rightfully the most famous American athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, repudiating Adolf Hitler’s notion of white supremacy by winning gold in four events, the gold-medal-winning effort by the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington remains a remarkable story. It encompasses the convergence of transcendent British boatmaker George Pocock; the quiet yet deadly effective UW men’s varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson; and an unlikely gaggle of young rowers who would shine as freshmen, then grow up together, a rough-and-tumble bunch, writes Brown, not very worldly, but earnest and used to hard work. Brown (Under a Flaming Sky, 2006) takes enough time to profile the principals in this story while using the 1936 games and Hitler’s heavy financial and political investment in them to pull the narrative along. In doing so, he offers a vivid picture of the socioeconomic landscape of 1930s America (brutal), the relentlessly demanding effort required of an Olympic-level rower, the exquisite brainpower and materials that go into making a first-rate boat, and the wiles of a coach who somehow found a way to, first, beat arch rival University of California, then conquer a national field of qualifiers, and finally, defeat the best rowing teams in the world. A book that informs as it inspires (from Booklist). 

I got this one for Christmas and saved it until February when I knew that I would want an Olympics-themed read - even if it is set during the summer!

If you're wondering why Sochi isn't the safest place to hold an Olympics......
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s final work—a gripping novella about the struggle between the Muslim Chechens and their inept occupiers—is a powerful moral fable for our time. Inspired by a historical figure Tolstoy heard about while serving in the Caucasus, this story brings to life the famed warrior Hadji Murat, a Chechen rebel who has fought fiercely and courageously against the Russian empire. After a feud with his commander he defects to the Russians, only to find that he is now trusted by neither side. He is first welcomed but then imprisoned by the Russians under suspicion of being a spy, and when he hears news of his wife and son held captive by the Chechens, Murat risks all to try to save his family. In the award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, Hadji Murat is a thrilling and provocative portrait of a tragic figure that has lost none of its relevance. 

I've meant to read this one for the longest time - some of Tolstoy's contemporaries considered this novella an even finer work than War and Peace - and it's certainly a smaller commitment in terms of reading time!

If the Opening Ceremonies were not enough......

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg-a "window on the West"-and culminating with the challenges posed to Russian identity by the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself-its character, spiritual essence, and destiny. He skillfully interweaves the great works-by Dostoevsky, Stravinsky, and Chagall-with folk embroidery, peasant songs, religious icons, and all the customs of daily life, from food and drink to bathing habits to beliefs about the spirit world. Figes's characters range high and low: the revered Tolstoy, who left his deathbed to search for the Kingdom of God, as well as the serf girl Praskovya, who became Russian opera's first superstar and shocked society by becoming her owner's wife. Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the spirit of "Russianness" is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory-a powerful force that unified a vast country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.

I read this years ago and dip back into it all the time - cultural history is the best kind of history because its so easy to relate to and yet is still strange and unexpected.  

And because all this Olympic watching and reading will make you hungry..........
With startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life in that vanished empire known as the USSR—a place where every edible morsel was packed with emotional and political meaning. Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy—and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return. Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that past to life, in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya and Larisa, embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience—turning Larisa’s kitchen into a "time machine and an incubator of memories.”

I just started this one but it's already intriguing - the first chapter is about dining in late Romanov Russia and the food descriptions are to-die for!

Review: I Always Loved You

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A novel of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’s great romance from the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships. In I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira brilliantly re-creates the irresistible world of Belle Époque Paris, writing with grace and uncommon insight into the passion and foibles of the human heart. (from Amazon)

It's a testament to the power of this story and the conviction of Robin Oliveira's writing that I'm able to look back and review this book almost six months after reading it. Oliveira's first novel - My Name is Mary Sutter - is on my list of all-time favorite historical novels so when I saw that her follow-up book looked at one of my favorite times and places in history (the Belle Epoque Paris of the Impressionists), I was beyond excited. 

I've been disappointed by a lot of historical novels lately - they either seemed to lack ambition or would have been better served by a focused editor's eye. I Always Loved You is the exact opposite - a considered work of art in its own right that looks at the twisted demands of art, family and love and that brings late 19th century Paris to life. 

The novel is beautiful in its simplicity - a short opening chapter that introduces the reader to an older Mary Cassatt then moves seamlessly into two stories based on the real lives of the small, interwoven group of men and women who would become known as the Impressionists. The main story focuses on the artistic and emotional development of Mary Cassatt, one of the few female painters in the group. In a richly detailed third-person narrative, we're brought close in to the daily frustrations of an artist at a critical juncture in her working life, that time when a painter or a writer or a musician knows enough to know that they have so much more to learn. At this moment, she meets Edgar Degas and begins an acquaintance that shifts and grows and fractures with time, defying categorization but always influencing her artistic development in unexpected ways. 
A secondary plot, exploring the love triangle between Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Moirsot throws Mary and Edgar's relationship into relief, providing perspective and a deep thread of melancholy through the story. 

Some historical fiction readers may find the gradual development of personalities and relationships too slow and lacking in the more dramatic narrative twists and turns that mark the genre - I found the difference refreshing. Despite my excitement, I found myself reading this one slowly and that it took time for me to develop an appreciation for the unusual rhythms of the story generated by the short (4-6 page) chapters. 

I rarely buy books after checking them out of the library or receiving e-galley copies. But there are some cases when I want to support the author and in some small way thank them for working for years to craft a story that has brought me so much joy. I'm looking forward to returning to I Always Loved You again and again as the years go by. 

Source: Advance e-galley from the publisher for review

Review: Isabella, Braveheart of France

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

She was taught to obey. Now she has learned to rebel. 12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England - only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair - does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death - or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself? Isabella is just twelve years old when she marries Edward II of England. For the young princess it is love at first sight - but Edward has a terrible secret that threatens to tear their marriage - and England apart. Who is Piers Gaveston - and why is his presence in the king’s court about to plunge England into civil war? 
The young queen believes in the love songs of the troubadours and her own exalted destiny - but she finds reality very different. As she grows to a woman in the deadly maelstrom of Edward’s court, she must decide between her husband, her children, even her life - and one breath-taking gamble that will change the course of history. This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England - and win. (from Amazon)

Isabella, daughter, wife and mother to kings, is one of those odd historical figures who led a fascinating and drama-packed life but who rarely shows up in historical fiction. I remember reading one of those old-school 1970s novels about her when I was a teenager in the 1990s and I'm sure Jean Plaidy gave her the fictional treatment at some point but the titles of both novels escape me. Unfortunately, Isabella is best known for her highly inaccurate appearance in Mel Gibson's 1995 epic Braveheart about the life of William Wallace. In that movie, Isabella appears as a fully-grown woman who has a daring affair with the Scottish rebel that results in the birth of the future king Edward III. Of course, none of that is true - she came to England to marry its king as a girl of twelve, long after Wallace was captured and executed. Hats off to Falconer for attempting to reclaim her true story - although I had to smile when I saw the sub-title of the book!

As for the novel itself, I struggled with Falconer's decision to use third-person, present tense to tell Isabella's story. For many readers, this narrative choice lends a vivid immediacy to the recreation of history. I can only recall two historical novelists (Hilary Mantel and Jude Morgan) who can handle the tricky nature of present tense and they do it by infusing their language with the flavor of the times. Unfortunately, Falconer's novel is far too short (my advance reader's copy wraps up at 207 pages) and filled with choppy chapters (often only one or two pages long) to supply the deep sense of narrative and detail that can compliment a present tense narrative.

I did enjoy Falconer's ability to inject a sense of humor into his character's dialogue - this is an often overlooked aspect of historical fiction that helps bring long-dead people to life - and Falconer is quite good at it. He also has a strong sense of color and paegentry that serves the setting of Medieval England and France quite well. While this novel wasn't quite my cup of tea, I think it could serve as a nice introduction to Isabella's story and many readers will find much to like in this fast-paced story.

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. 

Theatre Day: Swan Lake

Sunday, February 2, 2014

St. Petersburg's historic Mariinsky Ballet--one of the most influential classical companies for more than two and a half centuries--returns with Konstantin Sergeyev's bewitching 1950 production of Swan Lake, based on Petipa and Ivanov's immortal 1895 masterpiece and danced to Tchaikovsky's glorious score. The Los Angeles Times proclaims: "Swan Lake, in the hands of the Mariinsky Ballet, is an experience of classicism that few can duplicate"--from the tender romance that blossoms between Odette and Prince Siegfried by a moonlit lake to the seductive "Black Swan" pas de deux featuring Odette's nemesis Odile. With their unparalleled upper-body elegance and beautiful arms, the Mariinsky corps de ballet's formations of ghostly swans are a must-see experience in a production where the forces of evil are no match for true love.  (from Kennedy Center website)

You would think that after growing up with a beloved grandmother who loved classical ballet and then developing my own interest in late 19th century Russian ballet as an adult, I'd have seen at least a few ballet performances. Unfortunately, ballet is not of the most accessible arts and even in a major arts center like Washington, DC, the opportunities to see true classical ballet are few and far between. 

The Mariinsky ballet is one of the greatest ballet companies in the world and their world tour stops in DC for one week in late January every year. In past years, I've bought $15 tickets to the afternoon rehearsals but this year I bit the bullet and bought a ticket to a full evening performance - the very first time I've seen a ballet. 

My first impressions were of an order and sense of tradition that's not seen much in our time of informality and instant gratification. First, there was the Kennedy Center - all lit up by the Potomac, a sudden reminder that I live in Washington, DC. I know that sounds silly but it's easy to forget in the day to day rush of getting to work. Then there is the unusual experience of sitting in a massive theatre, filled with men in black tie and women in gowns (although I did spot jeans on a few people!). Not having a ball gown on hand, I wore my best work dress and heels and dressed it up with a scarf and my grandmother's diamond engagement ring. I found myself loving the order of the lights going down, the orchestra warming up, the announcement of no cell phones or texting (and people actually following those directions!) and nothing can compare with that moment when the curtain goes up. 

There - all of a sudden - is an entire world made out of lighting and set decoration and costuming. Even with a full orchestra playing, you can still hear the dancers' shoes shuffling and hitting the stage and it's a wonderful reminder that there are actual people and the incredible physical exertion needed to create the overall illusion onstage. 

Swan Lake is probably one of the most famous ballets (alongside The Nutcracker) but it's a odd ballet. From scene to scene, there are massive tonal changes - from bucolic dancing and merry-making to almost mythical moments of the supernatural. The Tchaikovsky score ranges from Polish mazurkas to that dark, imposing "Swan" theme that almost everyone can recognize. I was sitting next to several people in their 20s who seemed lost and were having a hard time following all of the action. 

Ballets don't have a narrative arc the way we think of them in movies or plays. Yes - there is a story but there's little emotional or psychological motivation in the characters. The prince and Odette (the white swan) fall in love because you need them to dance a pas de deux at that point in the ballet and Odette actually doesn't dance all that often compared to the rest of the corps de ballet. You think of the ballerina onstage all the time but actually there are a lot of in-between dances that show off the technical skill of the entire company and this is a relic of a time back in the days of the Tsars when the ballet was to show off technical skills and complicated choreography. 

I was disappointed to see that this production substituted a change to the original 1895 production - a happy ending that comes very abruptly and seems to be there only for current audiences who would be even more confused to sit through a three-hour ballet in which everyone dies at the end. Instead, I focused on individual moments in the ballet - Odette's first solo and Odile (the black swan's) bravura moment when she performs fouettes across the stage. It was almost overwhelming to see something in three dimensions with so much going on all across the stage - TV and movies prepare you to see only one thing at one time - and it's a remarkable experience to see twenty to thirty people, all with world-class level skills building a world right in front of you. 

The three hours went by incredibly quickly - I honestly felt like the entire thing had taken only about an hour - and was left thinking about the amount of effort it takes to enjoy ballet and the way it forces you to think and see in new ways. For some, ballet may seem to be a static relic of the past but for me it was a magical experience that allowed glimpses at moments from St. Petersburg, Russia in the fall of 1895 and London in the summer of 1911 and Washington, DC in the winter of 2014.