Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
Ever since I was a child I have been immensely captivated by the Romanov family, specifically Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. When I read that Nicholas and Alexandra was the premier authoritative source on the last Russian royal family, I decided to request it from my library. I was slightly surprised to discover that it was written in the 1960s (for whatever reason I thought it had been published in the 1990s) but it was still fascinating all the same. Being a nearly 700 page biography, Massie could go into a micro level of detail that is obviously not found on websites about the family or children’s works. It was very sad to read how time and time again, the heavens were clearly against this family. Yes, the Russian peasant class suffered more on a daily basis, but none of the Romanovs, neither Nicholas II nor his children, got to choose the life they had. (Nicholas inherited the throne as a very young man due to his father’s premature death.) As for Alexandra, while it was quite uncommon at that time, especially for a woman of her background, she married Nicholas for love. However, the fact that she was circumspect, modest, and German proved an insurmountable obstacle to being accepted by the Russian people. It was also quite sad to learn that if only Nicholas had agreed to a constitutional monarchy like his cousin in England had (King George V was the nephew of Nicholas’ mother) instead of maintaining absolute rule, the Russian royal family might have lived. And needless to say, to read the final chapter of the Romanovs’ lives and all that ensued with the Bolsheviks’ rise to power was heartbreaking. One always hears about Nicholas and his immediate family being murdered but anyone tied to the royal family suffered the same fate. At times it was somewhat dry, but if you want to know more about this misunderstood and misrepresented family, I highly encourage you to read this.
Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck
I’ve always enjoyed reading about Ernest Hemingway, but ever since I read Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, which is told through the voice of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, I’ve liked even more works in which Papa isn’t the main character but rather on the periphery. And I have to say that I liked Hemingway’s Girl even more. Set in Key West, Florida during the 1930s, it’s told through the character of Mariela, a local girl who ends up working at Hemingway’s house for him and his second wife Pauline. All the drama of a figure as large and prominent as Papa is there, along with the Great Depression and World War I vets who were brought to the Keys to help in constructing portions of the Overseas Highway (Mariela gets to know one of the vets). This is a book in which I was immersed from the first couple of pages and is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.
The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay
As I loved another work of Fay’s that I’d read earlier this year (a culinary travel narrative that takes place in Vietnam), I was anxious to try out her debut novel, The Map of Lost Memories, which takes place in Hong Kong and Indochina (what today is Vietnam and Cambodia). Fay’s work encompasses everything from international treasure hunting (set in the 1920s, this was a time when “taking” things out of one country to put on display in another country was completely acceptable due to the former colonies not being “mature” enough to handle their national treasures), to murder, to of course, love. While I found some of the storyline a bit over the tops at times, it is a novel after all. As Fay had lived in Vietnam for years and traveled to numerous other countries in the region, I loved her descriptions of the story’s settings. Needless to say I adore anything having to do with Southeast Asia, especially from a colonialism aspect.
Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan
I’m the first to admit that I have rather eclectic reading tastes, especially when it comes to reading somewhat old and slightly smelly historical nonfiction. But while perusing Amazon’s website one day, I came across a title, Women of the Raj, that many people had recommended. If you’re not familiar, Raj refers to the former British rule of the Indian subcontinent, a period that lasted from the mid-18th century until 1947. So this book was essentially everything having to do with the British women who once called this vast space their home (the Raj included everything from what is today India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka). A lot of it was dry, but other parts were immensely fascinating, like packing lists for those preparing to move there to the ridiculous attire they still wore even in the subtropical climate (full Victorian style clothing even though temperatures would peak well over 100 degrees) to readings the do’s and don’ts of Raj society (very rigid rules). My slight disappointment was that reviews on Amazon described it as a funny read, and while it certainly had some comical parts mostly relating to how the British behaved at times, it was more of a historical read, through and through. It would probably make for a fascinating text for a college class.