8

Books I read so you don’t have to

This time last week, I thought that I was nailing this Non-Fiction November business.

I read and loved Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, then Forty Autumns, and I finally got to Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which, in hindsight, feels like an important and timely read.

But I also stumbled a little and today I want to talk about those.

First up: The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING Or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off the Dog by Jen Lancaster.

The first time I read one of Lancaster’s memoirs (Bitter is the New Black), I remember laughing hysterically in the bathtub. It was one of the first times that I realized that non-fiction could be funny. I became a devoted fan.

Some of her fiction efforts, however, have fallen flat and I’ve recently sworn them off altogether.

tao-martha

Still, her non-fiction titles haven’t been an issue so I was excited to find a copy of The Tao of Martha when I was in Portland recently. The Tao of Martha is about Lancaster’s efforts to live more like Martha Stewart for a year as a way of boosting her own happiness after a difficult year. Her beloved dog, Maisy has been fighting cancer for a couple of years and that, along with a number of other personal issues, just seemed to be wearing Lancaster down. She decides to follow Martha’s edicts on how to have a beautiful home, cook, clean and entertain.

And it was kind of funny. I definitely cried reading about Maisy.

But somewhere in the middle I just got really irritated. It just felt so indulgent, especially those chapters about gardening and how the roses weren’t just right. I understand that Lancaster has worked really hard to have the life that she has. And I admire Martha’s hustle, I do. I just couldn’t get over how privileged it felt. It wasn’t what I wanted to be reading.

It could be me and the fact that I’ve recently read some really great non-fiction that challenged me a little more. Or maybe that I’ve just outgrown Jen Lancaster at this point, something that would be kind of sad.

ja-england

And now, I’m about 60 pages away from finishing Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. It’s subject matter should be fairly self-explanatory: it looks at England during Jane Austen’s lifetime. At what people wore, ate, where they lived, what they did for fun, how they travelled, what the laws were, how they worshipped etc.

And I appreciate that it actually manages to look at what life was like for the everyman – once upon a time I read a book that promised to look at every day life in the Tudor era but was really just about how the wealthy lived. I let it go because at that time, of course it would have been difficult for the everyman to keep a record of his daily life as most didn’t read or write.

But Jane Austen’s England is…stuffy. It started out strong but quite quickly became bogged down into excessively long quotations. Honestly, if you took out all the passages that were paragraph length quotes, I think the book would be half as long. It’s also maybe not the best time to be reading about at time when women were barely legal people, subject to the rules and laws of men.

I would stop reading it, but I’ve come so far, spent so much time on it already. To stop now would feel like a waste of all that time.

10

Why I love reading books by Julia P. Gelardi

I am a disciple of the brilliant Lainey Gossip and she always says that girl sh*t is the best sh*t. What she means is that the kind of gossip that goes down between girls is always the most interesting/fun/hilarious.

(Incidentally Lainey, or Elaine Lui to use her actual name, has a book coming out! Listen to the Squawking Chicken arrives in Canada on April 1st and the US on April 21st. Don’t worry, I already ordered my copy!)

This is true in Hollywood today and 60 years ago (Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Fisher anyone?) and it was true at the Russian court in the 1800s.

I just finished reading From Splendor to Revolution: Romanov Women 1847-1928 and it was full of girl sh*t.

Julia P. Gelardi has got to be one of the best biographers of famous women. I’ve mentioned it loads of times before, but her book about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who all went on to become Queens in their own right, is among my favourite biographies. From Splendor to Revolution is another excellent example of the talent of this woman to take the incredible lives of four women and the times they lived in and break them down into a 389 page book. That’s a tall order.

splendor

The book follows the lives and loves of the Empress Marie Feodorovna (who had been Princess Dagmar of Denmark), and her sisters-in-law Marie Pavlovna (a German princess who married a Russian Grand Duke, also known as Miechen), Marie Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexander II who married Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh and became the Duchess of Coburg), and Olga Constantinovna (a Russian Grand Duchess who married Marie Feodorovna’s brother George who became King George I of Greece, making his wife Queen Olga of Greece).

Did you get all that?

Aside from all the Maries (and Olgas and Alexanders) to keep track of, this book was full of gossip. The Russian court loved to gossip and compete with each other. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna did not like each other and things only got worse as Russia headed ever faster towards Revolution. Meanwhile, Marie Alexandrovna, used to the level of status she had in Russia as the daughter of Alexander II, fought her English relations for her level of precedence in their society.

Of course their lives weren’t all about gossip and fighting and the most exquisite jewels; Russia’s Imperial family were living on borrowed time and their Greek relations were no better off. By the time the 1920s rolled around, most Russian royals were living in exile (if they were living at all) while the Greeks made one last attempt at maintaining the throne.

One of the reasons why Gelardi is so adept at making these sprawling biographies of hers so accessible is that she is able to show the human side of history’s personalities. If you look at portraits or photos of these women, you see them covered in the garb of their position, dripping in jewels that don’t seem like they could be real. But when you get the chance to read their letters to each other during one of the most tumultuous epochs of human history, you get to meet the person beneath the crown. Queen Olga was an affectionate and empathetic woman, writing adoring letters to her nephew, the future George V; Marie Alexandrovna was a proud Russian and an involved mother, looking out for the interests of all her daughtes, especially Missy who became Queen Marie of Romania; Marie Pavolvna was an excellent hostess who loved to surround herself with the most glamourous people and in the end was a most loyal mistress; and Empress Marie Feodorovna was incredibly devoted to her husband and her children, and adored by Russia while she shared the throne with Alexander III.

I learned a lot from this one. The period of time covered seems so available because their lives bled into the 20th century – their descendants still exist! They’re not that far removed either. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a grandson of Queen Olga after all.

So that’s another fantastic book about woman from Julia P. Gelardi. Now I just need to get my hands on In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory!