The Book of Books – PBS (tie-in)

bookofbooks.jpgA random find at the library on the New Books shelf, this beautifully produced book was a joy to behold in terms of how it felt, looked, and the photos. It’s a book based on the PBS series, “The Great American Read,” which lists the top 100 fiction titles chosen through a “rigorous national survey” of 7,200 people who were “demographically and statistically representative” of the U.S. who were asked to name their most-loved novel.

This is actually the tie-in book for the eight-part TV series that “explores and celebrates the power of reading” and seems to be part of a “multi-platform digital, educational and community outreach campaign designed to get the country reading and passionately talking about books”. (Sounds like a noble goal to me!) (Haven’t seen this just yet though.)

So, this book does just as it says on the tin: lists 100 book titles, along with some background about the author, the plot, and the historical times, so it’s a very readable eye-friendly collection. I’m not sure if it’s listed in a numerical order of some kind (like a Top Forty would be on the radio), but regardless, it’s a pretty good mix of titles, some that were of no surprise (Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye) along with some that are not in the usual suspects list: Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight etc…

(Plus – it’s always nice to read a list of must-read titles and find out how many you’ve already read. Or is that just me? 🙂 )

What was really well done with this title was that it was printed in a great font put on to some heavy glossy paper, along with some great photographs of earlier book covers. It was a heavy book (due to thigh quality production) so more of a coffee table book, but it was a joy to read.

(The only thing to mar the experience was an occasional typo or error in the text. Would have been easy enough to fix with a sharp-eyed editor, but for some reason that didn’t happen. And these weren’t even huge errors. Just ones that someone somewhere should have probably caught.)

So, what were some of the titles? As mentioned, you have the obvious ones (such as P&P and Catcher), but then you’d turn the page and there’d be one that surprised you, not because of the title not belonging on the list (although I’d argue that about a couple), but more because the list strays off the High School Reading List which made a nice change.

Other little treats included in the book are many of the included books’ first lines, occasional lists of themed items such as “Admirable Female Characters” and also the inclusion of some of the “non-traditional” titles (for example, Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) so it was a good reminder of some of the other titles that are out there.

So, rather an enjoyable romp through some book titles along with some super-great production values.

(And if you’re curious about which titles made the list, check here.)

Advertisements

Summer’s Reading…

endofsummer

Well, let’s see. Last summer, there was quite a bit of reading and quite a bit of other stuff (which is to say everything that’s not reading!). For my first time through a faculty summer, I found it to be an enjoyable and relaxing experience (although I might rethink the “taking a class + teaching a class” paradigm for next year).

In lieu of a book-by-book-review post, I thought I might just hit the highlights of the titles that I did read. That way, you get the cream of the crop and I get to catch up. Win-win for all!

Fiction was a pretty good haul overall. One or two stinkers, but I won’t mention those. Good thing about most of this is that they were off the TBR and therefore, are now out of the house. (Just in time for the FoL Library Sale that’s coming up…) 🙂

Did a flurry of reading two books by Nina Stibbes (whose book, Love, Nina, I had loved on an earlier read). These were both solid Stibbes’ efforts: The Man at the Helm was about how two teen daughters are trying to find a new husband for their newly divorced mum with varying levels of success, and the second read was “Paradise Lodge” (no blog post) about a young teen working her first job at a retirement home in England. Both very British in setting and tone, and thus fit the bill for me very well.

(This is our off year for going home to England [i..e. unlikely that we’ll get there by the end of December], so instead, I’ll read some Stibbes. Funny, relevant, and just like hanging out with my own family over there!)

Read the very lovely title, “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, an Aussie author. An easy (but still enjoyable) read with a plot that revolved around a man who lives a very controlled life (rather similar to an Aspie and/or OCD) and how he wants to find himself a girlfriend with the end goal of getting married.

Using spreadsheets and questionnaires, the guy starts the search only to meet a young woman who is the opposite of predictable and detailed. How does this process go? You’ll have to read it, but if you know any Aspies in your life (diagnosed or not), then you’ll enjoy the story. Funny without being at all mean. (I’m on the lookout for the follow-up title now. I’m curious how the story evolves!)

Then lined up some multicultural titles with a short fiction anthology, “Mixed” (from authors who are of mixed descent and how that impacts their lives) – edited by Chandra Prasad and left me lots to think about. Then, some fiction by the oh-so-talented Paule Marshall (this one called “Timeless People, Chosen Place” about the culture clash of a white academic research team on an unspecified Caribbean island community). No blog post, but very good, as per.

Read some Colm Toibin whose writing I happen to love. Set in Ireland and usually pretty domestic in setting (and revolving around family), “Nora Webster” (no blog post) was a really good read. (Plus it was a cold weather setting which was nice in Texas summer).

For non-fiction, I read some corker titles. I travelled to the moon and back with “Moondust” by English journalist Andrew Smith (no blog post). This title searches for the remaining U.S. astronauts who have seen the earth from the moon (a number that is reducing as the astronauts get older). Smith is trying to answer the general question: “What do astronauts do/how do they cope when they’ve been to the moon and then have to live on earth for the remainder of their lives? How do they handle the ordinariness of earth life after having traveled to space?”

An absolutely fascinating read (whether you’re into space or not). Smith is a great writer with a dry sense of humor and tracks down the pilots while delving into the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to watch the moon landing, but I was only six years old so didn’t actually have a thorough understanding of the whole thing. I understand a lot more now, and realize that it wasn’t just about getting to the moon first.

Read a harrowing title by Luis Alberto Urrea called “By the Lake of the Sleeping Children”  about the people who live in the community that borders San Diego and Mexico. It’s actually a rubbish dump, but people live their whole lives in this awful place. I was astounded that this would happen so close to the Land of Milk and Honey, but it was true (probably still true).

However, despite the grim subject, Urrea is a gifted journalist who treats every one of his characters with dignity and respect while informing the reader of how truly hard their lives can be. (This was a bit of a hard read for me.)

Changing tack a bit (!), I finished up a biography of Princess Diana by Sally Bedell Smith (whose other work about the Queen and Prince Charles I’ve also read). Closer to a long People article than an academic treatise, it was still an interesting read and yet, even when you finish, you’re still no closer to the answers than before you started reading it. Interesting though.

Staying on the topic of royalty, I tracked down a title called Victoria and Abdul (about the “scandalous” [for the time] relationship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant she called the Munshi. Fascinating reading and took me down all sorts of rabbit holes for a few days after that. I wonder if the accompanying film is any good…

Did some traveling around the world via some titles: Canada guidebooks (where I visited avec la famille), and also an old classic travelogue about England in the 1930’s: “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton. Adored this read, both because it was like going back in time and also because it is one of my mum’s favorite titles. Just loved it – like a traveling “Cider with Rosie.”

Speaking of going back in time (but this visit to a startling different place) was my read of  the graphic novel, “The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks and illustrator Canaan White (no blog post but trust me, it’s good), which is a fictional account of the (true) harrowing tale of the 369th Infantry unit of the U.S. Army who were the only African-American soldiers to travel to France during WWI.

This unit of soldiers was given exactly the same (and sometimes more) responsibilities as the white U.S. soldiers, but then, upon the unit’s return stateside, the soldiers were expected to slide right back into the segregated racial divide that was life in America in the early twentieth century. Another rather harrowing read about a topic of which I was woefully unknowing, but important just the same.

And then I started my second all-the-way-through read of the AP Style Book (as needed for work and class). I’m getting there, but have learned to expect very little logic in its rules. :-}

And now, I’m reading a library loan called “The Book of Books” (from the PBS TV series and the Great American Read project) which covers 100 titles that are popular in America. I’m not sure who chose them (or how they were chosen), but it’s an interesting and diverse list of books ranging (so far) from “Gilead” (Robinson) to “Catcher in the Rye” (of course) to “Pride and Prejudice” to James Baldwin and the “Fifty Shades” series (!), so it’s difficult to know what’s coming next from page to page. Its actually really fun to turn the page and see…

Lovely production values and pretty diverse in fiction titles, so enjoying a browse through that. Plus, it’s fun to see which titles I’ve read and which I’ve not… (I seem to have missed that whole related PBS TV series though… Did anyone else see it? Is it worth tracking down?)

And now class has been back in session, the slightly manic first week is over, and I’m developing loads of PowerPoint presentations since I’m teaching a lecture class for the first time this fall. It’s all fun and games though, and I’m very happy to be back in the classroom again!

Bye Bye Summer…

toronto5

Well, somehow the end of summer has arrived, and I am now immersed in the annual ritual of going back to school. I had a great summer, and now I’m looking forward to a lovely autumn. My favorite month – bliss.

It also means that (hopefully) we are on the downside of moving to cooler temperatures, but it will still be a while yet. It was close to 100 degrees outside yesterday, so I’m very thankful that I happen to work in an office with air conditioning.

August turned out to be a busy and fun month. I finished up teaching the writing class I was handling as a summer class, and then I met up with my lovely mum and sister up in Toronto (one of my favorite cities now). Had great fun and walked our little legs off. Now I’m trying to find another time to visit all the other things that we didn’t get to see in our last visit… Did love Toronto though.

toronto7

toronto2

Niagara Falls (from the Canadian side of things.)

After that trip, we had time to wash our clothes and do a jigsaw puzzle with my mum who stayed with me a few days post-Toronto. Good fun, as always.

Mexico

My lovely mum loves jigsaws as much as I do…

Then, the Superhero and I went for a long weekend to sit on one of the lovely beaches in Mexico. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort so it was worry-free, apart from deciding what we wanted to eat and drink at intervals! (Very nice.)

mexico1

Pretty nice view… 🙂

Now it’s back to school. I have two classes I’m teaching now: both writing-intensive (which means grading-intensive for me), but as I love words and writing, I’m excited about getting to know this batch of college students. Lots of smiling faces right now. 🙂

Reading – I’ve been doing that, but I’ll save that for another post. Just wanted to pop in here and let you know that I’m alive. I’ve just been out there living a busy life!

Hope your summers were stupendous as well.

Toronto

Us playing with the mirrors on top of the   CN Tower. 

Catch-Up…

catch_up

It’s been a while since there’s been a general catch-up post on life, and so here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

The Summer of Liz continues at a really enjoyable pace. The first summer session at the university where I work was filled with a demanding (but rewarding) completion of a writing class. I was taking it for professional development, and it was really well taught which meant that I learned a lot from it. It was a lot of work, so I was a bit relieved when it finished. (Glad I did it though.)

This second summer session is keeping me pretty occupado, but this time I’m on the other side of the desk and teaching which I really enjoy. (It was fun, I must admit, taking the part of a student for a few weeks. I’ll definitely repeat that experience again at some point.)

So the next weeks will be busy in the mornings with teaching, prepping for class, and grading, and then that leaves the afternoons mostly free to play. I do have a work-related conference to attend in Dallas this weekend, but I love this event so I’m looking forward to it. I always learn a lot when I go and feel energized when I return. Lucky me, I know.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, my mum is coming out to visit, I’ve been preparing for a trip we’re doing (with my sister as well), this one to take us to Toronto. I’ve never been to Canada, so I’m pretty psyched to see how life is up there.

One thing that I know for certain is that it will be cooler than West Texas, thank goodness. I checked the weather in Toronto the other day, and it was a rather nice high 70s. (High 70s is high for some places, I know, but when we’ve been averaging 100 degrees most day, hanging out in such an amenable climate will be lovely, especially when I’m with the fam.)

(Quick question: Is Toronto humid? I’ll have to find out.)

We’re up north for a few days, then my mum goes with my sister to visit in CA, and then she comes to stay with me here. Then, when she leaves Texas to go home, I have a couple of days to hang out, and then the SuperHero and I are off down south to sit on a beach in Mexico for a bit. The goal: to do not much except enjoy the place where we’re staying and chill out. (Oh, and a bit of reading, no doubt.)

And, then, when we return from Mexico, it’ll be almost time for back to school for the fall semester, and then it’s back to business again.

I’m starting to plan some of my books to read when I’m traveling, and in Canada, I’m going to visit a bookstore (or five) with the aim of buying some titles by indigenous authors. If you have any titles/authors that you recommend, I’m starting a list so please let me know your thoughts.

In the meantime, it’s teaching, grading, hanging out, and going to the gym. Not a bad way to live at all.  🙂

In Search of England – H.V. Morton (1936)

morton

In a conversation with my lovely mum the other month, we were talking about books (I know – shocker!), and she happened to mention that one of her favorite travel books when she was growing up was “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton.

So – with my mum coming out to the U.S. for a visit in a couple of weeks and with the intention of passing this edition on to her, I pulled this title off the shelf to have a look at. (As an aside, this particular book was also published in the year that my mum was born, which is a nice overlap, I think.) Anyway, I’m always up for some armchair traveling…

This volume is one of several in Morton’s sweetly old-fashioned “In Search…” series, and it’s a narrative that was written as Morton takes a leisurely drive around England on the 1930s.

Published in 1936, it’s been twenty years since the scars of the Great War were cut, and England has recovered from the trauma that the war engraved on the national psyche. Another war seems to be out of sight, and it’s really a much more innocent England than it is now. Few realize that World War II is really just around the corner, and so life seems to be pretty cheery for the most part. (It’s only in looking back that you realize that the spectre of the second war was on the horizon…)

Morton takes a circuitous driving route starting out from just below Scotland, going south down the left-hand side (touching Wales and the West Country), swings across the bottom, and then loops up on the right-hand side of the country to return almost to where he started from.

It’s a gentle journey, and as Morton travels, the reader gets to meet some of the people and some of the places that he stops at. It’s a very charming book, and was a perfect read for me after the latest frazzling national news. It definitely calmed the nerves.

If you’d like a really lovely read of an England in the 1930’s, then I think that you would not go wrong with this enjoyable journey with Morton. It’s a product of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet you will too.

 

I’ll Keep You Safe – Peter May (2018)

35907150.jpg

I was just in the right mood for a mystery the other day so happened by the library (as one does), and picked up this Peter May mystery. I’m not that versed in mystery titles, but with the summer in full swing (hot), I was looking for a narrative set in a cold place.

This book, I’ll Keep You Safe, was set on the Island of Harris  in the Hebrides, so I was set for plenty of rain, wind and cooler weather. I’d vaguely heard of May as an author, but have seen his name in a wide variety of places, so checked this one out, title unknown. (It’s good to live on the edge now and then.)

This was a stand-alone mystery that features a young couple who have started their own independent tweed business, which after struggling for a while, suddenly takes off into the stratosphere when an (in)famous fashion designer picks their fabric for one of his fashion shows.

During one of these shows during Fashion Week in Paris, the husband of the couple goes to a business-related meeting, but gets killed when his car explodes from a bomb. Why is he killed? Who killed him? And what about his female passenger?

So the narrative builds from there, and plays with time, going into the past to show readers who the couple are, their history and up to the present. It’s not a really avant-garde approach to writing a story, but it does what it says on the tin (and this is a murder mystery after all).

mapwesternisles.gif

What was most curious to me (apart from the story which was great until the last couple of chapters – more on that later) was the fashion designer upon whom May must have based his character on. The fashion designer in the book is fashion’s bad boy – full of excess, abusive of both substances and his nearest and dearest. He is badly behaved and his contemporaries view him as the enfant terrible who produces amazing clothing shows that are full of theatrical and sartorial overload.

(The fact that there is a main character in this field also gives the author a reason to talk fashion lingo, of which there were quite a few words that I didn’t know. “Bumsters”, anyone? May does not wear his knowledge of fashion very lightly in places, as he kept making all his characters wear these bumsters. Can’t have been very warm in them there Hebrides!)

c925e6fa17da4beafafad8724ac4aece

Bumsters (low-rise jeans)

Doing some superficial on-line digging brought me to the realization that May must have based his fashion designer character on Alexander McQueen, an English designer in the 1990s and early 2000s. McQueen was known for excesses both on and off the stage, and, in fact, one of his own shows also featured tweed once Spring, so it was a match.

The designer in the story follows a similar career path as well, in that McQueen worked as chief designer from 1996-2001 at Givenchy, and then founded his own brand.

I wasn’t that familiar with Alexander McQueen, but he seems to have been a character, and his own tweed-based show seems to have met similar accolades from his contemporaries and the media. I am actually pretty curious as to how and why May based one of his main characters on this man.

I wonder what the trigger was for him (as the author) to pick McQueen? Looking at the author pic of May, he doesn’t look like a person who keeps up with high fashion but you never know…

Unknown.jpg

Peter May, the author.

So, the story rattles along at a fast pace, jumping between the small Hebrides island police and the Parisian police departments, both working hard to solve the car explosion. Was it a terrorist incident? Or was it personal?

As the tale starts to wind up, the clues narrow in and then, in the penultimate chapter (I think around there), May drops the hammer.

But when I learned who the murderer was, I was soooo cross as, to me, May had chosen a stereotypical and easy way out. I’m trying not to give you spoilers, but I was disappointed that the author had chosen this person as it just seemed to fall into a fairly typical male (sexual?) fantasy.

I honestly thought he could do better, specially considering that he has written and successfully published numerous books. Oh well. I enjoyed the rest of the book. 🙂

 

The Halfway Point…

Goodness me. July already. It’s true that time flies as you get older…

It’s been a hot summer here in West Texas, and I should really be used to this as I’ve lived here a very long time now. However, I always forget just how high the temps can get (and for so long). We’re got another four months of heat, so it’s all in the pacing… 🙂

So – we’re halfway through the calendar year, and what do I have to show for it, reading-wise?

45 books in total for a total of 12,990 pages:

  • 24 fiction
    • Includes short story collections, poetry, and a play
  • 19 non-fiction
    • I’ve been on quite a biographical kick – 7 this year

I’ve also been placing a much stronger focus on reading books by (or about, but preferably both) persons of color and other marginalized groups. So nearly 50 percent of my total reads have fit under that category, so I’m happy with that.

I’m definitely going to continue to have that focus for the remainder of the year until, hopefully, I get to the point where it’s not a conscious decision to go out and seek POC authors. I still have to research it quite a bit right now to find overlapping titles.

I have found that one title will lead to another one really nicely sometimes, and I’m breaking new ground with quite a few authors, POC and otherwise. So that’s been fun.

February was African-American History Month here in the U.S., and I found loads of great reading those weeks. I met some new POC authors, and got quite a few TBR off the shelves and out of the door (to make more for new titles, naturally!)

And I’ve tried to throw in a few classics in at the same time: Native Son (Wright) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (Baldwin) were two notable titles that I was happy to read and complete (even if I wasn’t 100% sure that I understand the narrative – Mr. Baldwin, I’m looking at you.)

My summer is going very well. I’ve just finished that last summer session class (which I really enjoyed), and then this week, I start teaching my own summer class. This goes on for about a month, and then I’m on holiday with my mum and sister up there in Canada, eh? (Sorry, Canadians. Couldn’t resist it. I’m interested to see if Canadians do really say that a lot. I blame it on Mike Myers, really.)

We come back from that and then I’m off to Mexico to sit by the sea and do not much, and then it’ll almost be back-to-school time.

With lots of reading, movies and puzzle times, along with mucking about and weeding in the garden (which I love doing), it’s been pretty relaxing.

(I usually find weeding quite a meditative sport to do when it’s not one thousand degrees outside. This is a good thing as plants/weeds grow like crazy in the summer months.)

 

How’s summer (or winter) in your own world?

Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess – Sally Bedell Smith (1999)

diana.jpgSince there was a rather large English wedding that occurred the other day, my curiosity was triggered to learn more about one perspective of another former royal: Princess Diana.

(Especially after reading two of Bedell Smith’s other books: Prince Charles (good but no blog post for this one) and The Queen.)

(I know, I know… I’m English and typically we tend to rather roll our eyes with respect to the monarchy and the American obsession with them, but it was still an interesting read. Besides, loads of Americans frequently ask me (as the only English person they may know) to explain some of the finer points of this, so I was also just curious. I’m doing it for the people, man. 🙂 )

Bedell Smith is an American writer who is good at her craft and seems to approach her subjects with a pretty well researched and balanced perspective. They’re not academic tomes, to be sure, but they are readable and seem balanced for the most part. Sort of like an in-depth People magazine article of a kind.

So, this title was about the life and death of Princess Diana in respect of how she ended up marrying Charles and then all the drama that came with that. (And there was a LOT of drama.)

After reading this book, the feeling that I end up with is one of pity for everyone involved, really. (Keep in mind that I didn’t know any of the parties though… 🙂 )

And so it seems that most of the drama was actually created by Diana herself most of the time (at least according to this author). Diana seems to be mentally fragile for the majority of this book. Barely educated (no thanks to her parents) and then probably mentally ill on top of that.

If this book is true (and I don’t know that it’s not true, TBH), then the match between Charles and Diana was a mess from the beginning and then stayed that way throughout their lives. I think that the initial impression that many Americans had of Diana immediately after she died was that she was a golden and angelic woman who was stuck with a boring old codger, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

(Whether she was mentally ill or not, she does come across in this read as a particularly high-maintenance personality in a very unhappy relationship that probably should have never happened.)

Bedell Smith uses source after source to show the reader that Charles as not, perhaps, the evil monster that he was portrayed as in the 1990’s, and the end result was that he was just doing his best with a slightly unbalanced wife who he shouldn’t really have married.

I’m not sure what to think really, and since I don’t know them in any way, there’re probably few out there who really do know the events. This was certainly one perspective that doesn’t apologize for either of them in the end.

By sticking to her journalistic sources, Bedell Smith seems to give a fairly balanced view of this messy marriage and I have enjoyed the read.

If you like a fairly chatty tone to your non-fiction, but one that’s also supported by annotated facts and a large bibliography, you might like this author. It’s certainly not rocket science, but it’s still a pretty good read for when it’s hot outside and you don’t want to think too much about anything in particular.

So, not a bad read. Not a great read. Just somewhere down the middle.

June 2018 reading review

June-Set-to-Refresh-01 (1)

June was an interesting month for me. Started auditing that class which has been great fun.

It’s been forever since I’ve taken a summer school class and I had forgotten how intense and fast-paced they can be. I’ve learned a lot though so all is well.

Reading has continued apace. Despite what I said in the above paragraph about all the classwork, there has been some messing around time and so I’ve managed to read a few more books than usual.

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in June: 11. (Hooray for summer!)

Total number of pages read3,375 pages (av. 338).

Fiction/Non-Fiction7 fiction / 3 non-fiction; 0 plays. 1 DNF.

Diversity5 POC. 4 books by women (+  1 DNF by a woman).

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 6 library book, owned books and 1 e-book. (Not too shabby.)

Plans for July: Read lots. Read widely.

jigsaw_june.jpeg

The latest jigsaw puzzle… The blue sky is driving me nuts. It remains to be seen if these final pieces make it into the whole pic or whether it is put away as is. Whenever it stops being fun, I think. 🙂

 

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante – Shrabani Basu (2010)

9780525434412

I’d been wanting to jump back into some Victorian history lately, so dug out this book about the slightly strange friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian man who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the end of the nineteenth century.

Called “Victoria and Abdul”, this is a solid non-fiction narrative that describes how a 24-year-old man from the Indian city of Agra ends up meeting and developing an almost inseparable friendship with Queen Victoria, the Empress of India.

Honestly, if you didn’t know this was fact, you’d wonder about the veracity of the story, but it’s a true one.

It’s also true that one can view the storyline through various perspectives, and I’m curious about how others have viewed this history, but for now, I am swayed that Basu, the book’s author, has done her homework and told a factual story.

If you’re not a fangirl or fanboy of Queen Victoria, there’ll be some gaps for you to fill in, but Basu does a good job of giving the reader the necessary background to comprehend what’s going on, and she writes in a straightforward manner which the reader will need as there is a huge cast of characters. Not a book to daydream through, but not difficult. (Plus there are lots of footnotes and citations to back all the information.)

(The only negative that I had for the actual writing was that it was a little simplistic in places, and Basu repeats some information several times (things an editor would have/should have caught, methinks.) But that’s really minor in the big scheme of things.)

Queen_Victoria_and_Abdul_Karim

So – to the story. Queen Victoria, now the Empress of India, was gearing up to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and with her queendom spreading across the world, she wanted to include some of her far-distant subjects in the event.

Abdul Karim was a young medical assistant in Agra’s prison and living a non-eventful life when his name was given to the ruling British diplomats as a possibility for traveling to England for the year prior to the Jubilee celebrations.

Abdul was ecstatic (as one would be) and travelled to England to meet the Queen and to work in her household. After an initial misunderstanding about what the job would actually entail, Abdul ends up serving meals to the royal household.

As time goes on, Abdul impresses the Empress (sorry – couldn’t resist), and his duties start to evolve. Queen Victoria is older now, 50 years on the throne, and it was unlikely that she would travel to India to see her subjects there.

Instead, she bought a group of Indian subjects to England to learn about their country. Abdul starts to give Victoria one-on-one private lessons on the Urdu language, and through their developing friendship and amid much consternation from the Royal Household, Abdul becomes closer and closer to Her Majesty.

Victoria names Abdul the Munshi, which means “clerk” or “teacher”, and over the next fifteen years, the Queen develops a very close maternal relationship with the Munshi (Abdul). He starts to advise her over Indian affairs, over-riding the Queen’s other more seasoned advisors, and Victoria starts to rely on him more and more, over more than just the India question.

He, for his part, pulls strings with Her Majesty to help his family, including giving a healthy pension to his father, and for Victoria’s household staffers, the whole thing is rather alarming.

This relationship causes endless friction throughout the staff at the Royal Household, especially as the Queen hands more power to the Munshi. He travels everywhere with her and spends all day with Her Majesty. She adores him, and does not tolerate any ill will towards him, despite what her advisors tell him.

And so the book goes on: the Munshi ends up with more and more power; one of his friends is thought to be an agitator and staffers delve into his background on suspicion of that. They delve into the background of his father, they try to rein the Queen in, they join forces with other government representatives…

However, Victoria was stubbornly protective of him until she died, and so for fifteen years, the Munshi and his royal friend ruled the roost.

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

So, Victoria was lonely and heart-broken. The stage was set for someone to step up to the plate to fill that hole that Albert had left behind.

If you think about it, Victoria really seemed to need someone close to her for most of her life. For example, once her children had left the palace for their own lives, she partially adopted an African princess, she had a close friendship with another man from India, she had a close friendship (?) with John Brown, and when he died, there was the space for her to make a close friendship with the Munshi.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she would be open to having another friend, unsuitable though the Royal Household may have thought.

In the end, when Victoria dies in January 1901, the Munshi’s life comes to a stop with regard to royalty. King Edward VIII is swift to send the Munshi back to India to live on his land that Victoria had given to him. Edward, not a fan on the Munshi, tracks down and then destroys most of the correspondence between Abdul and the Queen (even sending staffers to the Munshi’s house in India to knock on the door of his family home to see if they had any more letters that had been missed before). No one in the Royal Household wanted the Munshi to use that personal correspondence for money…

It’s all rather sad really. Despite the official background checks, Abdul didn’t have any nefarious goals (apart from some self-serving ones), and so when I turned that last page, I was left wondering what to think about all this.

Were the Royal Household unpleasant (and bullying) to the Munshi out of spite and jealousy? Why did Victoria dig her heels in to protect Abdul so much? As the years have passed, the general consensus seems to be that the Munshi was harmless and a good friend to the lonely Queen.

Being an Indian, he must have stood out in the royal residences, and surrounded by the Queen’s personal and long-employed staffers, it must have been lonely for him at times as well. He knew that he was not well liked.

The staffers’ long campaign to get rid of him failed, perhaps through a combination of racial prejudice and snobbery, and Victoria stuck to her guns for the last fifteen years of her life. The Munshi was actually, through design or otherwise, the last person to see Victoria before the lid of her coffin was put on…

Anyway, it’s an amazing story and I highly recommend this read.  Incidentally, there is also a movie of this book with Dame Judi Dench, which I am interested in tracking down sometime. I read that it takes some fictional liberties though…

I’ll have to see.

By the way, the Smithsonian magazine has a good article on this topic.