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The 2012 Review

This is the time of year when everyone looks back on the past 12 months and looks at the best and worst of etc.

I’d like to pretend like I’m different, but I’m not.

This was a big reading year for me.

I’m working through my Top 5 or other arbitrary number list in my head, but in the meantime I thought I’d look back at my reading trends and feelings this year.

Up for it? It’s happening, you don’t actually have a choice.

Like I said – big reading year for me. I make a goal for myself each year. In the past it’s been a bit lofty and I’ve handicapped myself by having to choose books that I think will get me to my goal. At the same time if I choose a goal that’s too low, it’s not going to be any kind of a challenge. This year I settled on 50. Left me room to play around with bigger books but also, 50 books is a lot.

I surpassed my goal. By a lot. As of today I’m working on finishing my 81st book. Which is the most I’ve ever read since I started keeping track of the books I read each year. And let’s face it, probably ever.

This year I discovered the delights of Agatha Christie. I never thought I was a murder mystery kind of reader but I am. I really really am. Aside from Agatha Christie, I devoured works by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess, The Preacher, The Stonecutter, The Stranger). I even read a real life crime book about a serial killer in Paris during World War II. That book was a lot more difficult to read. Like terrifying.

My failure to read Les Miserables in time for the movie’s release notwithstanding, I did seem to be drawn to books about the French Revolution. Charles Dickens and I came to an understanding when I fell in love with A Tale of Two Cities and I gave Michelle Moran a chance to wow me (she did) when I picked up Madame Tussaud despite the awful cover. While I was fascinated by the French, I became enamoured of Russian Royals, learning all about Catherine the Great thanks to the incredible biography by Robert K. Massie. That turned into a bit of an obsession with Nicholas and Alexandra and I just picked up a book about Royal Russian women by Julia P. Gelardi (which I’m really excited about because she wrote one of my very favourite royal biographies about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became a Queen in her own right).

My book club had a big impact on my reading choices this year. Our selections ranged from so-so to downright scandalous once we started on the Fifty Shades phenomenon. I was also on the hunt for anything that might have something to do with Downton Abbey and I finished off all of the available Song of Ice and Fire books. I caved and read The Hunger Games books (which I loved), and tried my best to read War and Peace, but was ultimately foiled when my copy was missing a sizeable chunk of pages. I still haven’t managed to sort that out – when I took a copy out of the library to read the missing pages, it was a completely different version.

It was a pretty low key year for non-fiction, something I plan to work on in the New Year. I did manage to continue my love affair with Malcolm Gladwell (he kind of changed my life with Outliers this year) and was completely fascinated by the lives of the Kennedy Women (Lawrence Leamer) and members of The President’s Club.

This was also a year when I made a lot of book mistakes, which was kind of a first for me. There were a number of books that I read that I just didn’t care for. A couple that I abandoned altogether (Catch-22, Little Shadows, The Vampire Lestat) and others that I struggled through that I wanted to abandon (The Stranger’s Child, The Prague Cemetery, Bride of New France, The Firefly Cloak).

But in the end, I read almost 81 books. And that’s pretty badass.

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Nicholas and Alexandra

Robert K. Massie first wowed me with Catherine the Great. Have you read it yet? It is exquisite. When I finished that, I wanted to read more. I already have a more than healthy obsession with royalty and the Russian royals are some of the most extravagant. This time, I picked up Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

This book is incredibly sad. So so sad. You know how it’s going to end and no matter how much you want the ending to change, sooner or later you are going to have to read about those final months and then the horrifying conclusion and this knowledge colours the entire reading experience.

A lot has been written about Nicholas and Alexandra. He was a Tsar that didn’t care about his people, that was off playing soldier, leaving the important work of governing to his wife. She was a cold German who was alternatively in league with the Germans and at the mercy of a Russian peasant. You may have heard of Rasputin – Boney M has a pretty catchy song about him.

The real story is completely different. Nicholas and Alexandra were that rare royal marriage that was actually a love match. They cared deeply for each other and for their five children. Alexandra was an incredibly shy woman who didn’t have the gift of making small talk with strangers, so people thought she was a snob. In later years she was completely consumed by worry over the health of their only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, who was a hemophiliac. His childhood was a painful one and his parents were desperate for someone to cure him. Rasputin seemed like he had that power and that’s why Alexandra was so willing to do anything that he wanted.

If you’re hoping for answers to the legend of Rasputin…I don’t know that there are answers to be had. I still don’t know what to make of Rasputin.

This book was published in 1967 and there are moments when you have to stop and think about that. For us reading the book now, the events of the turn of the 20th century are not part of living memory. But for Massie, writing in the 1960s, people that were alive in 1917 were still around to tell the tale. Barely, but they were there. He sometimes relates the events of book to things that were happening when he was writing and it takes a minute to work through what he means. It doesn’t take away from the book at all, but it’s a bit of a curiosity.

I read somewhere that Massie first became interested in the Romanovs after his own child was diagnosed with hemophilia. The hemophilia of the Tsarevich becomes such a massive issue for the Romanov dynasty. There is no telling how events would have unfolded had Alexei not been a hemophiliac, or, if the Russian people had known about his condition. It was a closely guarded secret. One gets the sense that Massie has real empathy for his subjects, parents watching their child suffer so intensely, just like he has.

Sorry that this is such a downer post. If you are looking for an upbeat read, Nicholas and Alexandra is not for you. But if you’re in the right mindset, it’s an incredible biography and I really do recommend it. Not sure if I will tackle Peter the Great next – I don’t tend to read many biographies of men, but if I do, this would probably be near the top of the list.

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Catherine the Great

I finally finished Robert K. Massie‘s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman and it was awesome. I loved it so much.

My knowledge of Russian rulers comes in much later – right at the end in fact, with Nicholas and Alexandra. So going in, I knew basically nothing about Catherine the Great. But thanks to Massie’s impeccably researched, flawlessly executed biography of her, I feel like an expert too.

So much scandal! I think if there is one thing that surprised me about Catherine the Great, it’s that there was so much scandal around her. But no one ever really cared to do anything about it. She was married to the man who would become Peter III and for nine years after they got married, she stayed a virgin. They were so concerned with getting an heir that in the end, she was seduced by someone that wasn’t her husband and forever after there was speculation that perhaps her son, Paul, wasn’t her husband’s son (they did eventually officially consummate the marriage).

Also? Catherine got around. She had 12 lovers. Twelve. Delightfully called ‘Favourites’ – but the euphemism fooled no one. It paid well to be a ‘Favourite’ – she gave them all houses, titles and tons of money and when it was time to part ways, she never held onto any ill will. She even made one of her lovers the King of Poland. Obviously that benefitted her as well, but come on. One minute you are the lover of an Empress, the next a King in your own right?

I think a lot of people tend to dismiss Catherine the Great. There is the whole thing with the lovers and the fact that her useless husband died under rather mysterious circumstances right after she took the throne from him, but she actually contributed greatly to the arts and culture of her era, and to the history of Russia in particular. She was an avid art collector, a student of the Enlightenment (although in her later years she didn’t think that the regular people were capable of ruling themselves), a patron of the arts and made vast improvements to the architecture in and around Russia, most of which still stands today.

Massie won a Pulitzer for his book Peter the Great – I don’t need to tell you that this man is a talented writer. He manages to break down all the crazy happenings of Catherine’s lifetime  – her crazy mother, the battles with Empress Elizabeth, the Pugachev uprising, the Revolution in France, Voltaire and the Enlightenment – into manageable, understandable, relatable nuggets of information. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the French Revolution, or seek to smooth out the imperfections that Catherine herself was very aware of and in so doing manages to create a book that is perfect in every single way.

It took me a while to get through it – this is a book that is 574 pages chock full of everything under the sun. But every minute spent with Catherine the Great is worth it and I’m going to kind of miss her.