Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book 54: The Churchills

I used my trip to England as an excuse to buy this book, and it was one of the reasons I ended up visiting Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and home of the Dukes of Marlborough (Winston was the son of a younger son, so no title for him).  The palace and the surrounding parklands were absolutely gorgeous.  It took me a few chapters to get into the book, and I was ready for it to be over about fifty to a hundred pages before it was over, but in the middle, it was a mostly engaging overview of the Churchill family.  However, I would say the title The Churchills is a bit misleading - the main character and focus is Winston.  After a chapter on the family member that won the battle of Blenheim, and became the first Duke of Marlborough, Lovell fastforwards to Winston's parents' generation.
While the main focus is Winston, Lovell includes more about the rest of his family than would probably be included in a straight Churchill bio, though I would assume that much of the information would still be included.  Lovell is very sympathetic towards her subjects, and defends some of the family members who have previously received a bad rap from other biographers.  Compared to the rest of his family, Winston was actually a bit of a puritan, marrying for love and staying with the same woman for the rest of his life.  Actually, his brother also didn't get divorced, but the rest of the family was constantly marrying for the wrong reasons (American heiresses for money, such as Consuelo Vanderbilt), and having lots of divorces and affairs,  It was actually a bit surprising.  Winston's mother was part of the Marlborough set (Edwards VII's social circle when he was the heir), and I was surprised by the amount of affairs taking place in Victorian England.  It sounded like a lot of fun, though.
While politics played into it, the book focused more on the private lives (if public figures get to have "private lives") of the men and women of the family.  There is an overview of Winston Churchill's political career, but while Lovell covers the basics, she didn't necessarily get into all the intricacies of it all.  In a way, I almost felt like Lovell wanted to write a biography of Winston Churchill, but didn't want to compete with all the other ones already out there, so instead she sold it as a family biography that just happened to talk a lot about Winston.  Overall, I would say it works well as an introduction (like most history books I seem to read anymore), and it definitely made me feel like I could tackle a pure Churchill bio.  Given that so much is already out there about Winston, I actually wouldn't have minded a bit more about some of his family members, since sometimes it seemed like Lovell would forget about them and then include them after a few chapters about Winston.  Also, she was very defensive of the family, and not critical of Winston at all.  I understand that after spending a certain amount of time with a topic, it is easy to become very biased towards the topic, but that is another reason I am interested in reading a separate Churchill biography.  Overall, Lovell had a very conversational and slightly gossipy approach to the topic which made it an engaging and easy read, but I wouldn't take it as the definitive book on the topic.

Book 53: Victoria's Daughters

In preparation for my vacation to the UK, I decided to do things the proper way for once, and read a few books about the area before I went.  I figured it would be a nice change from normal, such as when I picked up a history on the Medicis after returning from Florence.  I had already read We Two a few months ago, but was a bit curious about a different perspective of Victoria.  I chose this because I thought it would cover a wider range of history, and after reading about Victoria and her husband, reading about her and her daugthers seemed like a natural follow-up.  I quite liked the book - I'm not an expert on Victoria or family by any means, so I can't say much one way or the other about some complaints on Amazon regarding the accuracy of the facts.  I noticed one mistake when the author referred to Kaiser Wilhelm and Bertie (or Edward VII) as cousins in a foot note when in fact they were nephew and uncle, but that's the only one I caught.  For someone with limited knowledge on the topic, this really seemed like the perfect book.
Given that Victoria had five daughters, and through them and her granddaughters was related to rulers like Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Wilhelm, reading about these six women is really an introduction to European history from the mid-19th to early 20th century.  Packard discusses Victoria's lack of interest in her children, and states that she really only had them to keep Albert happy and as her duty.  He argues that in some ways Victoria's interactions with her children caused them problems later in life, and it is certain that she could at times be hard and unforgiving.  However, I also think he may be being a bit hard on her, because I don't think most society women in the 19th century really spent that much time with their children, and left them to governesses, tutors and private schools, so Victoria was following a trend.  Since Victoria and Albert married for love, they also encouraged their children to marry for love within the proper circles, of course.  Also, Victoria was protective of her family, especially as she got older.  It was quite interesting reading about how she interacted with her grandchildren vs. her children but it seems like most people mellow and become more indulgent as they age.
While Packard spends a lot of time discussing Victoria to explain her relationship with her daughters, he also focuses on each of the daughters.  Her oldest, Victoria, was brilliant and her father's favorite, and was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm.  After reading We Two which talked about "poor Vicky" and her relationship with her children, and especially her son, it was rather refreshing to read Packard who also addressed some of Vicky's flaws, and discussed how her early expectations may have been part of the reason her relationship with her son was so strained.  I've noticed this problem a lot while reading historical non-fiction lately: many foreign princesses have a hard time adapting to their new courts and don't understand them.  It didn't help that Victoria kept telling Vicky to act like an English princess rather than advising her to act in a manner her new family would approve of.
Packard did contradict himself a bit when discussing Alice, the second eldest daughter who had an interest in social improvement and nursing: at one point, he said her Englishness made it hard for her to adjust to her German surroundings and caused her problems with the people, but he also said she was well-beloved and greatly mourned at her death (she was the first of the daughters to die; one of her daughters married Czar Nicholas II).
Of Victoria's other three daughters, Louise was least conventional and had artistic ability.  She actually spent some time in Canada since her husband was appointed to an official job there, but they had some marital problems (he appears to have been gay).  The other two daughters stayed near to home, and Beatrice, the youngest, especially was seen as Victoria's helper and assistant.  At first, Victoria hadn't even wanted her to marry for this reason, but her husband agreed to be at the Queen's beck and call in order to marry her daughter.
Queen Victoria's family was full of personalities, and the fact that Victoria could be rather demanding certainly didn't make life easy.  However, Packard portrays a close and loving family, especially among the women of the family (the reader learns about the sons in passing and only when their actions affect their sisters, but it seems that Edward VII and his mother had an especially difficult relationship).  He doesn't fall into the trap of worshipping the royal family or trying to slander them, but instead presents portraits of a group of complex and flawed human beings.

Book 52: Juliet

While I have never agreed with the idea that Romeo and Juliet are the greatest romantic couple of all time, I have always enjoyed the play. I actually tend to think of the characters as dumb teenagers, Romeo being inconsistent and changeable (after all, he begins the play by declaring his undying love for Rosalind, a character that is never seen and smart enough to doubt his loyalty), and Juliet simply wanting a way out of her parents' house. If she'd seen Paris first, she might very well have fallen for him or maybe it was the parental approval that proved to be the turn off in that case. The magic of the play is less in the plot or the characters but the language, and Shakespeare's way with words. As a result, I always thought Romeo and Juliet would be a great candidate for a retelling, which seems to be a rather popular subgenre nowadays (see March, written from the perspective of the father of Little Women, or Ahab's Wife narrated by a briefly mentioned wife of the captain in Moby Dick- not that I could actually get through that last one). What if Juliet didn't kill herself, and went to a nunnery like Friar Lawrence offered?
Fortier doesn't quite go that route - Romeo and Juliet are still great lovers, but she grounds the story in a historical setting in Siena, where there are in fact two dueling families. I actually liked the liberties she took with the story and the ways she imagined it may have actually started before being distorted across the centuries. I was less happy with the part of the story that took place in the modern day. The premise of the novel is that when her great-aunt and guardian dies, Julie finds out that she is actually descended from the family of the real Juliet, and that there is a treasure waiting for her in Siena. Unfortunately, Julie is a bit dull and immature - at least in my opinion. When she first opens up her deceased mother's savings deposit box, she is disappointed because there are only old papers in there, not a bunch of money since being a dumbass 25 year old, Julie had never finished college or gotten a real job, and instead run up her credit card debt because she figured she'd inherit from her great-aunt. I'm not saying the heroine needs to have life squared away, but it would help if she wasn't a pushover, who didn't want to be a success because her twin sister was. I also understand that college isn't for everyone, it's hard to get a job nowadays, but there's a difference between going into debt because you have no choice and going into debt because you figure there might be money eventually.
Also, a 25 year old virgin? Really? Should I blame this one on Twilight? Why is there this idea that in order for it to be romantic and true love the woman needs to be a virgin? Was anyone's first time that great? How much fun can it possibly be to have sex with someone that has no clue what they're doing? I may look back and wonder at my taste in men on occasion, but I don't regret the fact that I had sex. You know for sure her "Romeo" isn't waiting for Juliet, and is hooking up with as many willing women as he can find. I guess there was a bit of a reason given one plot twist, but even that was a bit much (SPOILER this ancient order of monks checked the sheets for blood, but how many women even bleed their first time given gymnastics, athletics, tampons, etc. END SPOILER).
While in Siena, Julie quickly meets the descendents of the former dueling families as well as her own relatives. In some ways she is too trusting, telling everyone who she is and what she's doing after being warned to be careful, but naturally she doubts her ability to trust others (while there is no treasure in the box, there are clues that may lead to one). Speaking of which, could someone please write a thriller where the woman actually just trusts the guy she's attracted to and it all turns out alright? I'm getting kind of tired of the cliche where the heroine doesn't trust the guy she likes and wants to sleep with, and in the process of avoiding him gets caught by the actual bad guys. Just have her trust him, and have him be trustworthy. Or shit, let's really go for a twist, and have the main character be right to mistrust the guy.
I actually enjoyed the book while I was reading it, mostly because it alternated between past and present day setting, and I was really curious to see what Fortier imagined a real life version of Romeo and Juliet may have looked like. And Julie wasn't always that annoying, especially when she was trying to figure out the clues. Unfortunately this novel also contained a few cliches I've seen in other books, and I think I've just gotten sick of them, so I'm currently venting here, even though Fortier is not the only author guilty of them. Oh, and one other thing I could have done without - whenever Julie is with her Romeo, she makes comments like "Shakespeare wouldn't like that." Could you be anymore cheesy? Also, stop being so full of yourself: Shakespeare wouldn't care!