My Favorite Books of 2021 So Far

We are past the half-way point of 2021. Time to have a quick look at my favorite books thus far. The following books are my favorite because they touched my heart in one way or another.

I really enjoyed reading A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh. It’s a well-researched, fictionalized account of the early life of Empress Vicky of Prussia. Vicky was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. While her marriage to the Crown Prince of Prussia was an arranged union, it was a happy and fulfilling partnership. Vicky’s first child was Wilhelm II (yes, that Wilhelm). The novel charts the ups and downs of her marriage amidst the turmoil of 19th century Europe. I wrote more about the novel here.

Chère Annette: Letters from Russia is a compilation of letters from Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia to her favorite daughter Anna Pavlovna in The Hague. Maria Feodorovna was the wife of Paul I and the mother of Alexander I. The book’s editor traveled to the Netherlands to read and translate the letters from French into English. (The Russian court spoke French during this time). I love reading letters; it’s an authentic glimpse into the lives of women from history. Maria Feodorovna doesn’t have the best of reputations today and she isn’t as well known to modern audiences, but I loved getting to know her.

Salonica: City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower chronicles the history of the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. The true story of this amazing city really touched my heart. Salonica went from being a city of Byzantium to an Ottoman stronghold to finally gaining independence by merging with the Kingdom of Greece. The book charts the history of the Greeks, the Jews and the Muslims. It’s a fascinating account of a fascinating city. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in Ottoman history, Greek history or the history of city planning.

Do you have any favorite books of 2021?

xoxo, Jane

May 2021 Wrap-Up

The Reader by Renoir.

Well, hello there! Thank you for stopping by my blog.

Reading during the beautiful month of May consisted of one book and two short stories.

I read a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald as part of a creative writing course. The story we read is called Three Hours Between Planes. It’s short but very powerful. It’s a story about mistaken identity and about the “one that got away.” I was amazed at how much of a plot there was in just a couple of pages. And I say this as someone who does not enjoy reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. His writings usually leave me feeling depressed. What do you think of his works?

I also listened to a short romantic audiobook (novella-sized), A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci. The setting takes place at a winery over Valentine’s Day. It was a short listen (just under two hours) but it’s a sweet and romantic story. The heroine is the owner of the winery and she meets a patron who happens to be handsome and funny! Sparks fly. Happy Ending ensues.

Last but not least, I also read Salonica: City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower. The book chronicles the history of the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. Salonica went from being a city of Byzantium to an Ottoman stronghold to finally gaining independence by merging with the Kingdom of Greece. It’s not just about the Greeks and the Christian population. It’s also about the Jewish history, the Muslim history, it’s about the story of families and the story of the foreigners who came to Salonica for one reason or another. It’s comprehensive and well-researched. At certain times during my reading the true stories took my breath away. It’s a fascinating account of a fascinating city. If you are interested in Ottoman history, Greek history or the history of city planning, start with this book.

xoxo, Jane

Currently Reading: Salonica City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower

Salonica: City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower is literally the biography of Thessaloniki in modern-day Greece. The story begins in 1430 when Salonica fell to the Ottomans. The book ends in 1950, though I’m only half-way through.

It’s a remarkable story for a remarkable city. Before 1430, Salonica had enjoyed seventeen hundred years of life as a Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine city. But after it fell to the Ottomans, Salonica’s bright light wasn’t extinguished. The city carried on, a multicultural gem in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Christians, Jews and Muslims lived near each other, though within their designated quarters. Christians and Jews were classified as unequal to Muslims: their court testimonies did not count, paid higher taxes then Muslims and Muslims were not charged with a crime if they murdered a Christian or a Jew. Salonica gained freedom from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, reverting to the Kingdom of Greece. It’s a fascinating account of a fascinating city.

What are you currently reading?

xoxo, Jane

April 2021 Wrap-Up

Girl Reading in a Salon, 1876, by Giovanni Boldini.

Hello, friends! How are you?

April was another light reading month, but I trust you won’t judge me.

I re-read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and it was fabulous! If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is such a funny satire. I really appreciate the gothic story within the gothic story; the heroine, Catherine Morland, is obsessed with reading gothic novels and one of them, The Mysteries of Udolpho, plays a role in the story.

I read Taken by the Border Rebel by Blythe Gifford. The plot is set during the border wars in Scotland and England in 1529. Though it’s a serious and dark chapter from history, it was an enjoyable romance novel.

Last but not least, I also read Royals and the Reich by Jonathan Petropoulos. And all I have to say is: WOW! The book details the German royals who joined and aided the Nazi party. For me it was a very sad read, but a necessary read. What’s interesting (and infuriating) is that today most of these families live on their ancestral lands without having to pay retributions. Most of these families also refuse to open their family archives to the public. I assume it’s because they want to keep their Nazi past hidden. A very well-researched history book, if you’re interested.

What did you read last month?

xoxo, Jane

New Book: The Literature Book by DK

I’m really enjoying my new book, The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK. I love this book which is no surprise because I enjoy all the books published by DK. (Love DK!!!)

I would describe this book as bite-sized summaries and analysis of literature from 3000 BCE to present day (literally to present day: it ends with an analysis of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.). It’s not meant for helping you study. It’s just an introduction to literature for book lovers.

There are illustrations, author bios, charts, graphics and timelines to pore over. Also, since I’m a huge history buff, I appreciate the in-depth historical features. I’ve always thought studying literature should include reviewing the historical context stories are placed in. If you are a literature/history nerd like me, then this book is for you. If you are looking for something to help you pass an exam, this book is not for you. The Literature Book is for browsing, inspiration and fun learning.

Do you read books by DK?

Happy Reading!

xoxo, Jane

Pairing books with tea (A Most English Princess)

A Most English Princess: A Novel of Queen Victoria’s Daughter by Clare McHugh is about the life of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria (Vicky). When she was 17, she married Frederick (Friedrich or Fritz), the Crown Prince of Prussia. Their first child was Kaiser Wilhelm II. As far as dynastic marriages go, Vicky and Fritz shared a very happy and fulfilling marriage. A rarity in their era, they remained very much in love and committed to one another. The story takes you from Vicky’s childhood in England to married life in Prussia. It’s a fictionalized account but the author’s research shines through every conversation.

Wikimedia Commons. Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia painted by Oskar Begas, 1867.

Unfortunately their marriage was marred by hardship. First, their first born, Wilhelm, was a difficult child and grew into an obstinate, unkind adult who hated his “English mother.” On top of that, Bismarck never trusted Frederick and Vicky; they were too liberal and open-minded. For example, Frederick and Vicky believed in a free press. Bismarck did not. So Bismarck successfully convinced the Emperor not to allow the Crown Prince Couple to have any say in policy. Lastly, by the time Frederick took the throne as Frederick III, he was already terminally ill with cancer. He died just 99 days later. Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power and we all know how that went and where it led. (Though I should note that the book does not end with Frederick’s death. It ends much earlier and on a good note.)

Wikimedia Commons. Frederick in 1874, painted by Heinrich von Angeli.

The year 1888 is known as the Year of the Three Emperors (Wilhelm I, Frederick III, Wilhelm II). And it’s easy to remember the year because just think of the three eights as the three emperors.

A Most English Princess is very well written and entertaining. I could not put it down. The history was accurate. Every character has both flaws and positive traits, which made me sympathize with and better understand the various historical characters. All this to say that if you enjoy royal history, British history or Prussian history, I highly recommend this book.

Wikimedia Commons. Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, painted by Franz Winterhalter, 1867.

Now on to our question of the day. Which tea should we pair with this novel? Well, in honor of Vicky, I’m pairing it with a fine English tea called Albion, which is the ancient name for England. I think Vicky would approve!

xoxo, Jane

PS. If royal history is your thing, I write about it here.

Victober 2020 Finale

Victober reading.

This post is later than I had originally planned because the US elections consumed my every waking moment, driving me into the abyss of madness, stress and sheer exhaustion. However, all ended well. #relieved #thankgoodness

I enjoyed my first Victober reading challenge and will definitely partake again next year. Here is a run-down of the challenge and my thoughts.

  1. Read a Victorian book that equates to your favorite modern genre. I picked Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s a collection of short stories about the fictional town of Cranford. Truth be told, it didn’t have much of a plot and sometimes I was bored. It was nice to read vignettes of Victorian English village life though.
  2. Read a new to you book and/or short story by a favorite Victorian author. I decided to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first time reading anything by Dickens. I loved it! Why I waited so long to read this story I shall never know. I finally meet Mr. Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him. It is very cleverly written. I love that we get our Christmas traditions from Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories. I’m also a little obsessed with Charles Dickens right now so feel free to tell me your favorite Dickens tidbits.
  3. Read a Victorian diary or collection of letters. I read a collection of letters written by Queen Victoria. I have mixed feelings about Queen Victoria. I’m no expert on her reign, but it really bothered me that she wrote letters about frivolous things while so many families (especially children) went hungry. The starvation during Victorian England was an epidemic so I was annoyed reading Queen Victoria’s letters raving on about that minister or that gathering when real life was horrific for the 99%.
  4. Read a Victorian book you’ve been meaning to read for ages. I read How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman and The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski. This is the category where I cheated because both of these books were written long after the Victorian era, but that’s okay. Rules are meant to be broken, right?
  5. Read a Victorian book while wearing something Victorian. I don’t own anything Victorian so I wore perfume. The Victorians enjoyed perfume, so I think this counts.
  6. The Readalong: As part of a month-long readalong, I read Shirley by Charlotte Brontë. This was my second Charlotte Brontë book. The story is a bit of a love triangle with a lot of drama and some laughs. Everything ends nice and tidy though. While it was a wonderful story, I felt like it went on too long. There could have been a few scenes cut, methinks. But the Victorians, they loved their big books.

How did you fare with your Victorian reading?

xoxo, Jane

Thursday Reading Links #64

I have to admit, I’m surprised at how many confederate statues there are. Every day there is yet another story of protestors tearing down a statue. I say, good for them. Tear them down faster.

I don’t understand people who say you can’t learn about history (and the Civil War) without the racist statues. To them, I say: I’ve learned so much about so many countries and world events without ever setting foot in those countries. It’s called reading.

I’m writing a book where Nikita Khrushchev loiters in the background. I’ve never seen a statue of him (nor was I able to invent a time machine and travel to the USSR circa 1959) yet I know who he was and what he stood for.

Have you learned anything about something without visiting the country where the event took place?

**

A travel writer contemplates a less mobile future.

Speaking of reading, what does it mean to be well read?

The Brooklyn Book Festival is going completely virtual.

Have you seen this video of Ken Burns talking about the monuments? The video begins with a poignant interview given by James Baldwin.

DW has a really cool series of short videos called Meet the Germans. It’s all about German culture as discovered by a British woman living in Germany with her German husband. Super fun and interesting!

xoxo, Jane

A Stroll in the Garden

A few days ago, I grabbed my mask and left the house for a walk. Specifically, a walk through a garden because I wanted (needed) to be surrounded by greenery and flowers.

A peek of the house through the tree branches.

I paid a visit to the garden of the Lee-Fendall House. Luckily, I was the only visitor, so it was an extra special treat. The Lee-Fendall House was, for several generations, the home of the Lee Family. If you haven’t heard of them, they were (are) an old Virginia family.

I stumbled upon this memorial to Mrs. Eleanor Fendall, a daughter of the Lee family.
Mrs. Eleanor Fendall’s tombstone.

Some family members were signers of the American Declaration of Independence. Later some members (Confederate General Robert E. Lee) fought on the losing side of the American Civil War.

The Union Army turned their property into a hospital for wounded soldiers. By 1904, the home left the possession of the Lee Family. Today, the house is a testament to 19th century and early 20th century history.

A brick path surrounds the garden.

It was calming and peaceful to be there. I kept thinking of Miss Bingley telling Lizzie Bennet, “Let us take a turn about the room.” I also thought of Lizzie and how enamored she was of the gardens at Pemberley.

The back view of the house.

It was nice to “take a turn” about the garden and to enjoy everything without feeling rushed.

There were benches throughout the garden. Next time, I’m returning with a book.

xoxo, Jane

Thursday Reading Links #62

Hello! I hope you’re doing well under the circumstances. Here are a few reading links that caught my fancy.

Inside the Culture of Racism at Bon Appétit.

Muriel Bowser and Black women are going after Trump. And they’re winning. And may they keep on winning!

If this doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will: A teen who spent ten hours cleaning up after a protest in Buffalo is rewarded with a car and a college scholarship.

A Brief Feminist History of Bike-Riding.

Parents must teach their children to oppose racism.

And last, but never ever least: Black Lives Matter.

Be well and stay safe! xoxo, Jane

Hello.

The social injustice in our country (and actually in the whole world) is making my heart heavy with sorrow. I feel helpless. I vote in every election and I hope you do too. I have also donated to Black Lives Matter and to the Equal Justice Initiative. I will continue to make donations to them and to other causes that work on ending white supremacy in the United States.

As you can image, I am not in the mood to blog about books and such. It seems trivial compared to what is happening right now. I’m going to continue working on my own book while the blog stays quiet for just a little while longer. Thank you for bearing with me.

I leave you with this poem by German pastor, Martin Niemöller, who survived the Nazis. Unfortunately, this poem is as timely as ever.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

xoxo, Jane

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

IMG_2374

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between The Wars tells the story of five important women during a time when they lived on the same street in Bloomsbury, London. They didn’t necessarily know each other, nor did they all live on Mecklenburgh Square during the same time. However, their lives, struggles and the street they lived on bind them together. This is the foundation that Francesca Wade builds on in her debut book about Hilda Doolitle (H.D.), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf.

It took me almost two months to finish Square Haunting. Partly because it’s dense, academic reading and partly because I wanted to savor it. I loved reading this book and I learned so much, such as that H.D. was an American. How could I have not known that?

Francesca Wade took years to research and write this book. Her scholarly work shows through in the five sections devoted to the lives and scholarly pursuits of each woman.

“I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting.” Virginia Woolf, diary entry April 20, 1925

All five women were born during the Victorian era. An era when women had few options and weren’t allowed to think for themselves. The way the men in their lives treated them left me drained. All five of these ladies had to unlearn the social norms of Victorian society so they could flourish in their professions.

Even within the home, women were deterred from living a life of their choosing. To borrow Virginia Woolf’s famous words, a woman did not have a room of her own. For example, Francesca Wade highlights the difference between the study and the drawing room. A study was for a man. A woman was not allowed in the study, at least not without the man’s permission. The drawing room is a room reserved for the woman, but it is not her private room. Anyone can enter at any time, especially visitors. This resonated deeply with me; long after I finished reading the last page I am still thinking about the difference between these two rooms.

“The drawing room, Harrison wrote, was designated the wife’s territory, yet remained a public space, as ‘the room into which “visitors are shown” – a room in which you can’t possibly settle down to think, because anyone may come in at any moment.’ The husband’s study, by contrast, was ‘a place inviolate, guarded by immemorial taboos’, where the man of the house ‘thinks, and learns, and knows’; there were, Harrison noted, ‘rarely two chairs’ in the room.”

If you know even a little about Virginia Woolf, then you know how her life ends and Square Haunting does not gloss over it. World War II brought a great depression over her spirit. With airplane bombers flying over her house, and the bombings of London and the English countryside, it appeared to Woolf that there was no end in sight. After writing farewell notes for her husband and her sister, she walked into a river and drowned herself. Do you know what I wish? I wish I could invent a Time Machine and travel back in time to tell Woolf to hang on for just a few more years. That Churchill, and the Allies, would bring the war to a victorious end. I wish I could have told Woolf that not only would we win the war, but that future generations would come to admire, study and seek inspiration from the stand that Britain would make against Nazi Germany.

The current global pandemic is probably the worst event my generation has experienced. I must remind myself that for pre-Baby Boomers, life was generally awful: famine, the flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two World Wars… I could go on. Yet, these five ladies persevered through hardships and fought to make a living from their desired professions.

The women that dominate the pages of Square Haunting left me feeling inspired to continue working on my book and writing projects.

I’m glad I spent two months with these ladies. I thought about them as I went about my day. I thought about Sayers writing her detective fiction as I plotted my own fiction. I thought about Woolf worrying about the war as I pondered about our own economic and political troubles. And when I finished the book, even though I had tears streaming down my face, I felt a relief wash over me. Relieved that I honored them by reading about their lives and keeping their memories alive, but I also felt sad turning the last page because I was saying goodbye to my five ladies (as I privately began to call them).

Have you read Square Haunting or any of the published works of these five women?

xoxo, Jane