Category: Books

What I Read: Dictator Edition

I have a bit of a fascination with dictators. I don’t know what that says about me, honestly. If I had the time, I would happily sit through every show in A&E’s annual Hitler extravaganza. [Is that still a thing? Or did A&E dump Hitler in favour of sharks?] However, I am also oddly embarrassed of my predilection, so I rarely indulge it. I feel the same way about serial killers, which actually makes some sense since most dictators are serial killers on a grand scale. Anyway, the fact is that I know very little about dictators, save for what I’ve absorbed through osmosis from popular culture — and when it comes to this topic, North America (or its entertainment industry, I should say) is kind of obsessed with Hitler. Possibly because the West has been familiar with the details of his crimes almost from the beginning? I’m not sure.

As difficult of a read as A Night In Winter proved to be, it did prompt me to look up Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin. I knew very little, besides a thumbnail sketch, of the man. As with his biography of the Romanovs, Montefiore appears to be exhaustive in his research of Stalin. The book is thick, and dense with facts. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on Stalin’s childhood or early years in the Communist Party; Montefiore also wrote Young Stalin, which probably explains why he would not want to cover the same ground twice. Instead, the book focuses on the period from the 1930s up to Stalin’s death. This was actually the period of greatest interest to me, because I wanted to learn more about what life in Stalinist Russia had been like. The book does touch a fair bit on the main figures in Stalin’s political and personal life, which is what I was hoping for, but this came with a downside; there were a lot of people to keep track of, and some of them were too one-dimensional to be interesting. I frequently found myself wishing that, in addition to Stalin, Montefiore had focused on a smaller group of subjects — people like Svetlana Stalin, Nadya and Zhenia Alliluyeva, and Lavrenti Beria, who interested me from a psychological, rather than political perspective. I’m probably being unfair, because I’m sure the book was intended to be a political biography rather than a psychological portrait; with that said, Montefiore strikes me as a perceptive armchair psychologist, so I enjoyed the snippets of personality analyses sprinkled throughout the book.

Stalin was a long slog of a read, but I did to finish a shorter, breezier book in the meantime: If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley. I love books of this kind, like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. I thought IWCT also bore a lot of similarity to Bill Bryson’s At Home, though the latter is (in my opinion) a superior book. I enjoyed IWCT, but I also found it rather shallow. Balancing scholarship and entertainment value is not easy, but I think that authors like Bryson and Mortimer hit a better balance than Worsley in this book. Some chapters were only a few pages long, and left me longing for more information. I would recommend this book as a library loan, rather than a purchase.

On to articles … this NPR report on maternal mortality rates in the US is absolutely heartbreaking but also a tremendously important call to action. I was fortunate enough to go through two uncomplicated births, and never questioned the level of care I received — I just took it for granted. I cannot fathom being in a situation of utter vulnerability and not feeling 100% confident that I was getting the best care possible.

On a different note, this reddit thread (and the subject article) on the ethical aspects of fast fashion was another thought-provoking read. That there are systemic problems with current manufacturing practices is undeniable; but, as addressed in one of the comments, what happens to garment factory workers if those factories close down because US consumers start buying only “made in USA”? The answer seems to be to advocate for better working conditions and tighter government controls (to ensure safety, fair labour practices, etc.) in those same countries where manufacturing is a key industry now … but how can consumers be sure that they are supporting companies that rely exclusively on ethical manufacturers, thereby incentivizing the whole industry to move towards that direction? Personally, I don’t trust initiatives of companies like H&M that purport to demonstrate how ethical the retailer is being; they have too much at stake to truly be transparent. Organizations like Ecoage are great, but I am not sure that their reach is great enough – yet – to impact the average consumers, especially those on a budget. I don’t know what the answer is. Shopping secondhand, as much as possible, is one answer, which works for me but which may not work for everyone. I get discouraged by broad statements like “under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption.” There have to be more options.

What I Read: Psychological Thrillers

I thrifted a bunch of Ruth Rendell mysteries a while back, and promptly forgot about them … until recently when I ran out of other reading material. I devoured 3 of them in the space of a little more than a weekend, and they were really, really satisfying. I often forget about Rendell, although she should really be up there with PD James on my list of fave modern mystery writers. Her novels, although ostensibly centered around Detective Wexford and his team, are really more psychological thrillers or why-dunits than police procedurals. Her plots are often intricate and unusual, and yet somehow never seem implausible. I think they are similar in tone/approach to Tana French’s novels, but much better executed, in my opinion.

I read Babes In The Wood, End in Tears, and Sight For Sore Eyes and all 3 were excellent. I was fascinated by the character of Teddy Brex in Sight For Sore Eyes; Rendell has a great knack for getting into the mind of disturbed people and making their motivations and choices seem perfectly understandable even if not morally excusable. I also liked the more traditional whodunit plot of Babes In The Wood, which was a “missing persons” story chock-full of twists I did not see coming, not to mention a red herring or three. I am currently on the hunt for more Rendell mysteries at the thrift store to build up my library. These are definitely “re-reads” for me, so I would like to have them in my personal collection.

A big Amazon order also just came in, so I’m excited to delve into that new material. I think I’m going to start with a biography of Stalin … you know, just some light reading. With that said, my to-be-read stash is still pretty low, and I like to plan ahead, so if you have recommendations, keep them coming!

As for articles, this provocatively titled piece in Harper’s Bazaar caught my eye: Feminism Doesn’t Mean Liking Every Stupid Girl You Meet. To the extent that the idea that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” has been bastardized to mean that women have to validate/support any and all positions or choices espoused by other women, I agree with this writer’s take. To me, feminism means that all women should have the same rights and freedoms as men — including the right to autonomy of choice. But I don’t believe that feminism obliges me to agree with the specific choices of other women; only to fight for their right to exercise the choice. I think that is an important distinction. Feminism also doesn’t prevent me from criticizing a woman as long as my criticism is based on the same criteria I would apply to a man in the same circumstances, and my expression of that criticism takes the same form as it would if its subject was a man. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Cassie wrote a thought-provoking post about wearing your clothes versus modeling them (for blog purposes). As a blogger, I totally relate to this and can attest that it’s a pressure even “amateurs” experience regularly. As a blog reader, it’s one of the things that make it hard for me to relate to the majority of professional bloggers; I often find myself wondering, “did you really wear that — and for how long?”

On a totally different note, The Fashion Law reports that Louis Vuitton is suing a Canadian (holla!) flea market for selling counterfeits. Apparently, this may be a precedent-setting case in Canada; LV is attempting to hold the landlord/flea market owner responsible for the actions of individual sellers (stall tenants). My take: good on LV. I don’t consider myself an LV customer, though I own a couple of (authentic) bags, purchased secondhand; however, if I were an LV customer, I would appreciate the brand’s efforts because, even leaving the criminal elements involved in counterfeiting, the saturation of the market with counterfeits lowers the value of customers’ legitimate products, in my opinion. In other words, if I’m paying thousands of dollars for the real thing, I don’t want to see cheap fakes on every street corner. But that’s just my 2 cents.

Happy Friday!

What I Read (and Watched): Cute Vicar Edition

We will get to the cute vicar in a minute, I promise, but let’s start with what I read because … I did read, folks. I gobbled up We Too, which is an in-depth (non-fiction) account of Victoria and Albert’s marriage. The book was recommended to me by several BCRL readers, and I can heartily endorse the recommendation. You might query the need for such a narrowly-focused biography, but if you are interested in the Victorian era, this is the best psychological portrait of its two figureheads. I’m not sure that V&A’s relationship qualifies as a “romance of the century”, but it was certainly a very successful partnership that brought satisfaction to both parties (which, based on my informal study of history, is no mean feat for a royal marriage). The book does an excellent job of showing how unlikely a result this was, given the strong personalities of both parties and the unconventional circumstances they faced. I liked that the author remained largely impartial, making neither spouse a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. My overall impression was that Albert probably had more admirable qualities, but Victoria was the more likable of the two. I will say that the more I read about her, the more fascinating a character she appears to me.

I also read One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiori, who also wrote the (non-fiction) biography of the Romanovs I wrote about a while back. This was an excellent book, but a difficult read for me. Having grown up in an ultra repressive communist regime, books about life during the Stalin years should probably be off my reading list because they simply hit too close to home. Montefiori nailed the sense of oppressive dread that permeates every facet of daily life in a communist regime where your every word could mean life and death for someone (including your own children or parents). The book is loosely based on a real story, the death of two children of high ranking Communist party members in 1945. In a way, I would call this the Soviet version of The Secret Game by Donna Tartt, except in this case the protagonists are largely not culpable for the terrible things that happen to them. I found some of the scenes in the book hard to read, especially as a mother of young children, so keep that in mind (not so much graphic violence as terrible cruelty).

Alright, alright. I teased you with a hot vicar, and here he is:

'ello, vicar!
‘ello, vicar!

So, Grantchester. There are many things I liked about season 1, not least of them Mr. Norton, and a few things that bugged me. Let me start by saying that I totally buy Norton’s jazz-loving, gin-guzzling, weed whacking (not a euphemism), tortured gentle soul. 100%, no questions. (I have not seen Happy Valley yet, but would be interested to see how he plays a psycho.) What I did not buy, however, was the chemistry between Sidney and Amanda, or the reasons that kept them apart. For me, that was a big problem, because the show devotes a lot of time to that plot line. It bored me, much as I appreciated watching James Norton look adorably forlorn. The rest of the show and characters were very enjoyable, however. I loved Sidney’s camaraderie with Geordie, and his relationships with his housekeeper and curate. The mysteries are pretty straightforward, but I liked watching S&G piece together the answers. Overall, I liked the series a lot, but didn’t find it as compulsively watchable as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries; indeed, I found myself more than once wishing that someone like Phryne would cross the vicar’s path. Alas, did not happen.

I would like to watch seasons 2 and 3, without having to pay extra for the pleasure, so I really hope that Netflix adds them to their line-up soon. Ditto for the Miss Marple mysteries. Come on, Netflix!

As always, let’s wrap up with some interesting articles. This article about a manufacturer switching the brand labels on clothing sent to a particular retailer was somewhat amusing at first, but mostly enraging on second thought. I would have expected something like this to be against the law, but apparently not. The fact that every facet of the entire clothing production-retail cycle is so obscure to consumers is beginning to bother me more and more. How can consumers make informed choices when they are being kept in the dark, or worse yet, deliberately hoodwinked? Gah.

There was an interesting discussion on Corporette this week, sparked by this article which questions the trope that motherhood is the most important job a woman can have. It got me thinking. Motherhood is not a job. It’s not even a volunteer position, because you are essentially creating the people who will later need your help. It’s a hobby. Hear me out. A job means a position where you create value (through a product or service) to someone external to yourself and get remunerated for it. Having kids does have, at a macro level, a societal value. We need new people to keep our social systems going. But at the individual level, your particular kids or mine represent a relatively small value to society. (I mean, yes, they could turn out to be the next Gandhi or Einstein, but there are no guarantees. They could just be the same as millions or billions of other people out there.) The societal value of your motherhood is compensated through things like tax benefits, tax breaks, etc. Beyond that, the primary value of motherhood is to yourself. People have kids to please themselves. It sounds almost wrong to put it like that, but it’s true. Some people value having kids, some don’t — just like some people value running or crocheting, and some don’t. Is it the most important hobby? Ideally, if it’s a hobby you’ve decided to take on, then yes. It should be the most important because it involves the well-being of small humans who are utterly dependent on you. Should it be the most important hobby to every woman in the world? Of course not. It’s not biologically necessary for every woman on earth to have kids, and at the personal level, importance is completely subjective. I understand why some women might want to stress its importance — it’s something that falls predominantly on female shoulders and women are encouraged by society to sacrifice other opportunities to take it on. They want recognition for that, and that’s fair. But I think that treating motherhood like a job just perpetuates the patriarchal status quo. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lastly, not an article, but I recently discovered Justine Leconte’s YouTube channel, and she is delightful.