Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

I think it’s safe to say that Julian Fellowes has become one of my favorite authors. Not only because he writes about my favorite subject: British nobility; but because he writes about them so well and in a way that I have not read from other authors. I read his book Snobs and thought that it was a good read. Very detailed and telling about the gentry families of England. Past Imperfect is very different. He still writes about the high families and their posh lifestyle, but this book gets psychological about the nobility.

The story follows the narrator on a quest for a former enemy to find his illegitimate child by a woman from their youth. Of course, the narrator is reluctant at first to relive the Debutante Season of 1968, but when he learns that Damian Baxter is a dying man, he gives in to his whims to track down the child. Our narrator must travel back in time and he takes us readers on quite a journey.

The description on the back of the book tells me all of this and I expected a well-told life history of debutante balls, fancy dinners, and teenage shenanigans. I got what I was expecting, but with a little twist in which the narrator also describes the current lives of the women he revisits which are less than happy ones. We visit a woman with a husband who cannot be trusted with money; a woman with a bully banker for a husband; one who’s been the love of the narrator’s life for forty years; a Californian, plastic-surguried woman who has had more than her fair share of husbands; and a husband of one of the women who died a tragic death. Our narrator goes on an emotional roller coaster trying to find the child in question to satisfy a dying man’s request.

I already knew I would like the book because Fellowes writes really well. Every manor house we visit is described in perfect detail. Every instance of well-born routine is perfectly executed. His writing is part of the reason I want to be a part of that world so badly. I appreciated, though, that he wrote about less-than-perfect situations. It opened my eyes to a world I want to be a part of so badly, and made me realize that it’s not all fancy parties and exquisite balls. Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that these people don’t have their own problems, but I rarely get to read about them.

I hope Julian Fellowes keeps writing. There are still other books of his I need to get my hands on. Other noble families that need their stories told. Even if they are fictional.

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Daughter of York by Anne Easter Smith

Here we are again diving into the world of British nobility/royalty. Only this time, it’s better because it’s The War of the Roses. My favorite time period in English history. Brothers betrayed brothers. Uncles betrayed nephews. Husbands betrayed wives. It was a mess that spanned 30 years, four kings and ended one of the largest dynasties in royal history.

This particular book is about Margaret York, sister of Edward IV and takes place just as Edward seizes the throne in place of the mad king Henry VI and his wife Margaret Anjou. Most of this book actually takes place during a relatively peaceful lull in the War of the Roses. Margaret grows up in her big brother’s court learning from her mother, the great Cecily Neville, about how to be a gracious host and fierce diplomat. She falls in love with Anthony Woodville, brother to King Edward’s wife Elizabeth. Then, Margaret is married to Charles Duke of Burgundy and must hide her love for Anthony. She watches the events in England from afar as she cares for her stepdaughter Mary. She watches as her brother Edward loses the throne and gets it back again. She watches her two other brothers George and Richard betray and stand by Edward respectively. All of this while serving England to the best of her ability.

It’s a large book. It took a while to get through. Anne Easter Smith is so detailed in describing the surroundings of the characters. She beautifully describes the palaces Margaret visits, the cities she frequents, and the people around her. I feel like I know royal court personally.

Obviously Anne Easter Smith did not live during the time period so she had to invent some things. The one thing she invents that I though I was going to have a problem with was the dwarf Margaret comes to own. Fortunata was a strange choice of confidante to give Margaret. At first I didn’t like it because I thought Smith made her far too important for an invented character. But as the story wore on, she grew on me. Finally, at Fortunata’s death scene, I found myself bawling like a baby at the loss of the character.

Books like this are hard to criticize because a lot of it actually happened and no one alive today was there to see it. I can’t really be critical of the author without being critical of the events. It was a good story and Anne Easter Smith told it very well.

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The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Nicholas Flamel. When I read the description on the back of the book, it was this name that caught my attention. My Potterhead senses tingled. Unfortunately the book has nothing to do with J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece. Nonetheless I was intrigued.

Nick Flamel and his wife Perry have been alive many millennia thanks to The Book of Abraham the Mage or The Codex. They can make The Elixir of Life, they can turn any metal into gold, and they also have extraordinary powers. They’re also being hunted by Doctor John Dee who wants The Codex for evil reasons. Josh and Sophie Newman wind up helping Flamel and learning that there is a prophecy in the Codex that refers to twins such as themselves. Thus, a book series is born.

The writing is juvenile, but I can’t really be mad at that since I found the book in Teen Fantasy. It managed to keep me reading and that’s what counts. The only real issue I had (along with other critics of the book) was the inconsistencies of Josh and Sophie. One moment they are terrified of the events that they’ve been through and can think of nothing but going home. Next, they tell Flamel that they are ready to fight and are willing to do anything to help him. But again, I can’t really be too critical of the see-saw feelings because Josh and Sophie are supposed to be fifteen years old and, let’s face it, teenagers are inconsistent and unstable beings.

The aspect of the book that I really enjoyed was the prospect of mythical characters and creatures popping up and being real. At one point in the book, Dr. John Dee wields a Sword of Ice, once called Excalibur, and Flamel muses that he thought Artorius (King Arthur) destroyed the sword. Historical objects and people are my thing and we might get to meet more.

So, will I continue the series? Most likely. Will I buy up and read the books with a cult-like fervor? Probably not.  Am I secretly hoping that during the series we meet a friend of Flamel’s named Albus? You best believe.

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Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

When your mom is willing to murder for you, one would think that their reign as the Roman Emperor was fairly secure. Unfortunately for Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or just Nero, HIS mother was willing to kill her one-and-only son to ensure she was given equal power. How does one survive such a fatal family member? Stay one step ahead and murder mom before she can murder you. It’s super fucked up I know, but that’s how Nero had to live life.

Margaret George perfectly sums up what life was like for a Roman Emperor. Big-ass houses. Raunchy-ass friends. And the constant threat of murder from you family. She portrayed Nero unlike anyone I’ve read before. Mostly I’ve heard that Nero was an incestuous asshole. Stories say he was vindictive, he lusted after his mom, and, at the end, didn’t seem to care that Rome was burning around him. But George finally makes Nero the victim. And after reading this version of Nero, I would have to agree.

First, he was nearly drowned by his lunatic uncle Caligula. Then, he learned that his mother poisoned the only father figure he had ever known. Finally, the cherry on top, that same mother drugged and seduced her son into a seriously gross night. Nero was screwed from the start. There was no hope.

If you think you have some family drama, I urge you to read about Nero. It will make you feel a lot better about your messed up family. IMG_0895

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham

“Churchill’s attitude toward Roosevelt was one of profound affection and regard.” This quote is from Anthony Montague Brown and it, or some version of it, is repeated several times throughout this book. Interestingly enough, the same is never said about the way Roosevelt felt about his British counterpart. It is for this reason that I have a hard time calling their relationship a “friendship.” It seemed more like unrequited love.

Meacham explains why both men were the way they were. And both explanations are the same age-old tale: daddy issues. Winston Churchill was never able to satisfy his father, so he spent his adult life trying to impress and gain the praises of one of the most powerful men of the century. On the flip side, Roosevelt was spoiled by his parents, so his self-importance made him a hard man to impress, since he felt the better man regardless.

I get it. The psychology explains most of it. And World War II makes up the rest of the explanation. Churchill was desperate. He (and his military) needed help. And Roosevelt was the only man powerful enough to help in the way Churchill needed.

All of that aside, the relationship between the two great men was painfully one-sided. Churchill seemed deeply and sincerely interested in the friendship. He wrote letters, gave gifts, he even traveled to Washington D.C. to see Roosevelt. Roosevelt however, was distant and cold. He was a friend when duty required him be so, but otherwise he considered himself a superior human being, and above needing friends.

There were instances of affection from Roosevelt. Like when he offered his unconditional help to Churchill (and Britain) lost a battle in Tobruk. Or the moment they shared on a rooftop in Marrakech overlooking the city. But he could have just as easily turned on Churchill. Like in Teheran when Roosevelt joined Joseph Stalin in teasing Churchill all night, leading Winston to be jaded by Roosevelt’s kindness.

The relationship between these two larger-than-life men was, and remains, complicated. For me, calling it a “friendship” is a little too optimistic. Whatever they were to each other didn’t matter though. For they were heroes to their countries.

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The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Are you ready for an adventure? Because it seems that you’re going to get one whether you like it or not when you travel with Allan Karlsson who just ran away from the old folks home, escaping hid 100th birthday party.

Throughout the book, Jonasson follows his character Allan around the world and across time. The book alternates between Allan as a centenarian on the run and Allan growing up. Being the history buff that I am, my favorite chapters are, naturally, the ones that take us back in time.

Allan’s life was an interesting one. One of his friends said that he had “nine lives” and from what I read, it’s true. Allan participated and lived through the Spanish Civil War, befriending Generalissimo Francisco Franco along the way. Then he came to the states where he worked as a waiter for those involved in the Manhattan Project, where HE was the one who figured out how to control an atomic explosion. After that, he went to China to help fight against Mao Zedong and the communists. He ran away from that and into the arms or Comrade Stalin, who he also told about the atomic bomb. After insulting the Soviet leader he was shipped off to a Siberian labor camp which he inadvertently burned to the ground. Finally, he got to meet Mao Zedong who set him up on vacation in Bali.

I love the way Jonasson wove Allan into a bunch of historical happenings. It made me think, “maybe there was some random guy who told the men how to explode the atom bomb. Or saved Mao Zedong’s  third wife. Or told Stalin to shave his mustache.” It’s funny to think about someone getting through all of that without even losing a limb. I love Allan as a person too. He only got into all this trouble because he was helpful and non-political. He just accidentally met up with the political figures.

If you only read one book in your life… it does not have to be this one. But it should be one like it. Full of accidental and unexpected adventure. IMG_0891

The Residence by Kate Andersen Bower

Is it so wrong that we want to discover the most intimate goings-on of America’s most famous house?

Well thanks to Bower we can say we have some idea. Through interviews with several former and current staff members, Bower opens a world that few get to experience.

The White House is America’s most famous residence and it houses America’s most famous family. What Bower shows us however, is that the First Family is not the most important group with the house’s walls. Bower interviewed several White House staff members from maid Betty Finney all the way to Barack Obama’s private secretary Reggie Love, and has collected stories from those who were closest to all of the families that lived in the famous house, showing that many of the members of the First Family are just as human as you and I.

The most amazing part of this book was the stories from those staff members who spent 20-plus years working in the house and had seen multiple families come through. I was truly impressed by the stories of the staff members that willingly sacrificed marriages, time with children, even their own lives for the job.

Bower does an amazing job using the interviews to highlight the similarities and differences between the several occupants of the White House. She also does a good job at letting the reader in on some White House secrets and odd idiosyncrasies of former presidents (i.e. JFK’s naked swims and LBJ’s weird obsession with his shower).

My favorite part though, was the staff stories and reactions to major historical events. There was the high tension during the Iran Contra Affair; the heartbreak and sadness during the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; and the shock and fear as staffers recant how they literally had to “run for their lives” on the morning of September 11th 2001.

I myself cannot imagine working in an environment of such prestige and trying not to make a big deal about it. I recommend this book to all kinds of readers. It is an endearing journey through history.

And if that can’t sway you… Just read it for the story of how Hillary clocked Bill in the face with a book. Classic. IMG_0889

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

I confess myself a little disappointed by this book. The disappointment is self-inflicted though, I should have known this book was nowhere near long enough to be about the entire reign of Victoria like I thought it was.

Daisy Goodwin’s novel takes the reader through approximately the first year-and-a-half of the young queen’a reign. We meet Alexandrina Victoria Saxe-Cogburg-Gotha and see her become Her Majesty the Queen of England. We see her deal with and try to avoid her over-bearing mother, the Duchess of Kent and her adviser Sir John Conroy. We follow as Victoria confides in her Prime Minister William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne and grows to feel more than just friendship for him. Finally, we watch as Victoria falls, reluctantly, in love with her cousin Albert.

Like I said, most of my disappointment stems from the fact that this book did not follow the entire reign of Victoria, but another wave of disappointment came from the book’s mundane quality. The story we get from Goodwin is fine. It’s decently researched and well-written, but it focuses on the daily life of the young queen, and only her daily life. There were so many historical happenings during her reign. Granted, there may not have been many during her first year, but I guess I was hoping that Goodwin’s story would stretch beyond Buckingham Palace.

The character of Victoria bothered me as well. That’s not Goodwin’s fault since the eighteen-year-old probably was the spoiled brat that she was portrayed as in the book. I guess I don’t like Victoria’s inconsistency. We see her fall for Lord Melbourne and see her subsequently get rejected by him. So, like any good stung teen, Victoria decides that she will reign like her glorious ancestor Elizabeth I and never marry. Then, in waltzes Albert to whom she proposes marriage. I find it hard to believe that after being so sure that she never wanted to marry, that she would suddenly fall for her cousin after only a week. For all I know, that’s how it really happened, but it made the end of the book feel rushed.

I’m glad I read it. I recommend to those who enjoy Historical Fiction. IMG_0888