Queen Victoria: A Life – Giles Lytton Strachey (1921)

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.

Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.

Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…

To the facts:

Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)

Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :

  • Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…
  • Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face.  In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …

Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.

  • After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
  • Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….

“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”

  • Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
  • After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
  • When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
  • Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
  • Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
  • Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
  •  “From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”

(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)

  • She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.)  She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.

Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways. 

So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

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Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

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Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

Hello, my lovelies.

Phew. You can tell it’s getting close to the end of the college semester on our campus. All the Things Due Right Now. 🙂

I have been reading, I promise, but sometimes my eyes are too tired at the end of the day to read, so I’ve been doing some other stuff in the meantime. Including quite a bit of this:

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And going to the movies:

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And seeing this one as well…

Which has meant lots of this:

And then the election:

But it’s been more fun than not. Promise – more books soon… 🙂

October 2018 Reading Review.

 

Crikey! That month passed quickly! Let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest).

The reads for October included:

  • Young Men in Spats – P.G. Wodehouse (1936) F (no blog post but typical Wodehouse)
  • Swing Time – Zadie Smith (2016) (300 pages read but DNF) F
  • The Vampyre – John Polidori (1819) F/Short story
  • The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017) NF/Graphic
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Marata (2018) F/novella
  • Kaffir Boy – Mark Mathabone (1986) NF/autobio (post to come)
  • The Devil and Sherlock Holmes – David Grann (2010) NF (post to come)

Ongoing project: Just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in September7

Total number of pages read: 1,818 pages (av. 260).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: fiction / 3 non-fiction.

Diversity4 POC. 3 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, 4 owned books and e-books.

Future plans include just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

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Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

500+ Thank you’s…

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Wow. I’ve just noticed that more than 500 extremely smart and very hip readers have signed up to follow this blog.

Having crossed this milestone in relation to blogging may not be that big a deal to some of you out there, but it is to me.

I appreciate every minute that you choose to read the text in each blog post, especially when there are probably one hundred and one other things circling you for immediate attention.

Thank you to all who read these words. I’m having fun writing them, and so I hope you can say the same with respect to reading them.

Here’s to more bookish chit-chat! 🙂

 

In this box are all the words I know…

“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask the questions which have never been answered and all the questions which have never been asked.

“All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them, there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must do is to use them well and in the right places.”

— The King of Dictionopolis, The Phantom Tollbooth.

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