Friday, September 29, 2017

Review: THE ROMANOV SISTERS, by Helen Rappaport

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. Published 2015 by St. Martin's Griffin. Nonfiction. History.

It might seem like a depressing topic for a book- the doomed lives of the four daughters of Russia's last tsar- and while it does get gloomy towards the end, for the most part I really enjoyed Helen Rappaport's biography of Anastasia, Maria, Tatiana and Olga Romanova, along with the stories of their parents and brother. Rappaport gives the reader an engaging and detailed portrait of a time, a place and seven lives that just weren't what they should have been.

Princess Alix of Hesse, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, married Nicholas of Russia as much for love as for dynastic reasons and together they had five children, all of whom they adored, even as they longed for that crucial son needed to continue the royal line. Rappaport talks about the mixture of joy and disappointment that greeted the birth of each of their four daughters and the subsequent mixture of trepidation and joy when their son Alexei was born with hemophilia. Rappaport portrays the tsar and tsarina as devoted parents and a loving couple and makes it clear that the survival of the line is Alexandra's primary goal. Thus her relief at Alexei's birth coupled with her growing and deepening anxiety around his delicate health. Rappaport also makes it clear that the Russian people never quite took to their German empress and that giving birth to daughter after daughter didn't help matters. Nor did her friendship with Rasputin, a controversial figure to say the least, and Alexandra's dependence on him was in no small way connected to her concern for Alexei, whom Rasputin seemed to be able to help. Meanwhile, she and other Russian royals tried to arrange marriages for the two older girls, and when that ship sailed, everyone did the best they could to protect them and each other. Sadly those efforts failed.

The book gives the reader a detailed and intimate look at the family and only really hints at the political strife swirling around them. We get to know each girl a little- Anastasia the tomboy and jokester, sweet Maria and lovelorn Olga and Tatiana. They love sailing; they love their parents, and they try to be good at the job of being grand duchesses. But they are also ordinary girls trying to make their way in a narrow version of the world. We see their constrained and isolated lives become more and more so as revolution brewed in Russia and some knowledge of the political history of the revolution would aide the reader in getting a deeper appreciation of why their lives changed from those of beloved princesses in a gilded palace to prisoners and finally to murder victims. That said, it is a remarkable and unforgettable story, sad to the end though it is.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Another End-of-an-Era in NYC

One of my favorite bookstores anywhere in the world is the Strand Bookstore in Union Square NYC. For years I've made a habit of dropping by any time I visited the city and when I moved here three years ago the realization that I could just get on a subway train and go anytime I wanted was... well, awesome.

And one of my favorite things about the Strand, that made it different from other awesome bookstores, was their "review books" section in the basement, where they had shelves and shelves of half-price new-release hardcovers. I would go in sometimes just to browse that particular section, being as it was a curated and discounted selection of new releases. Located in a corner of the basement level, it was a quiet break from the bustle of the new-books floor above and always promised some treasures.

But now it's gone. I went in to the Strand the other day to sell some books and after getting my freshly-minted store credit slip went downstairs to see if there was anything great to take home. And it was gone! Now over the years the section has become smaller- two aisles at last count, down from four in my time coming to the store. But now it's gone. I asked at the information desk if it had moved (it has in the past), and the bookseller told me the books were still in the store but "reallocated" to their subject sections. So the Strand still has its half-price new releases, but they're all mixed in all over the store now.

I'm sure this integrated arrangement makes more sense for actually selling the books, which is after all the point. In the past, if you went in looking for certain new releases in hardcover, you might not find them in the general new-release section or in the fiction section dominated by older releases and paperbacks, and you might think the Strand doesn't stock them.  The review section was dominated by popular fiction and general nonfiction, books that some readers might not associate with the store. And since most people don't ask if they can't find something, and you might never think to look in the review section, you might just assume you're out of luck. Now, it's right there in alphabetical order. Makes sense, right?

But it also makes me sad, because the review section was, like I said, one of things that made the Strand special, and I'll miss it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished Lisa Riggin's The Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, which was interesting and something I'd recommend for someone interested in San Francisco history.

I'm thisclose to finishing The Golem and the Jinni; it's really good but I have to really force myself to settle down and read sometimes. 

Still working on The Possessed at the gym. I like it. It's fun.

I also started Alissa Nutting's new book, Made for Love, on audio thanks to libro.fm's bookseller program. It's a very engaging book, about a woman running away from a disastrous marriage to a tech overlord that reads like science fiction sometimes. I can't wait to see where it goes and I definitely recommend it for fans of edgy ladies.

What are you reading today?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What's New On the Shelf?

For once in my life I think I'm reading (and weeding) books faster than I'm accumulating them. But I have added a few things to my shelves over the past few weeks, after the heady indulgence of BEA back in May and the cartons of galleys I routinely take home from the bookstore.

My most recent acquisition is a galley of the upcoming "fictional memoir" by my favorite living author, César Aira, called The Linden Tree. It comes out in the spring from New Directions. Sorry Kerry. :-(

On my last shopping trip to the Strand Bookstore, I picked up The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard, 1935-1936. It's one of the only known journals by a Gulag guard that's been found. Ivan Christyakov, the author, was by all accounts a pretty average guy but he left behind some extraordinary insights.

I also got The Shape of Bones, by Daniel Galera, the latest from the author of 2014's Blood-Drenched Beard, a Brazilian thriller I really loved.

Finally another Aira came my way, The Little Buddhist Monk, the most recent book to be published by this wonderful Argentinian author.

And this afternoon I plan to purchase What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

I won't get to the Gulag book till next year, but hopefully I'll crack one or two of these as we start to wind down and head into the fall and winter holidays. What's new on your shelf?

Monday, September 11, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished Hunger, by Roxane Gay, and Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast, so things can only get better from here. Each of those books was agonizing in its own way, and yet also essential reading.
I'm still enjoying The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, which is a great fantasy-tinged fable I think I'll be able to recommend to lots of readers. Set in Manhattan in the early 20th century, it's a somewhat familiar immigration-era story whose mythical elements distinguish it. Also distinguishing is the whipped-cream writing, so easy to lap up.

On my nightstand is Lisa Riggin's The Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, about San Francisco's leading lady abortionist, a fun and fascinating portrait of a woman, a city and a time in history that I certainly hope never comes again. I always enjoy San Francisco history and this book, set in the 1940s and 50s, has an appropriately colorful cast of folk heroes, swindlers, hustlers and villains. I'll let you decide who's who among its roster of cops, abortion practitioners, prostitutes, hangers-on, society high rollers and everyday people just trying to get by. It comes out in October and I expect to be done reading it this week.

And still slowly reading The Possessed, Elif Batuman's light and enjoyable memoir about studying Russian literature. It's fun. I don't have another audiobook picked out right now but I'd love to hear your suggestions.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

Monday, September 4, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Got through a few things last week; finished Monsieur Proust's Library and read A Game for Swallows, by Zeina Abirached, a moving graphic memoir about Beirut at war. And I finished Jon Papernick's very good collection There is No Other. I have one of his novels hanging around; I'll get to it soon (famous last words).

On Sunday I finally started The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker, a very popular book that's been outstanding in my TBR pile for a while. I'm really liking it. It's about two magical creatures who come to life in early 20th century New York City. I'm only about 70 pages into this 500-odd page book but I can already see why it's done so well.

I'm struggling to finish my audio copy of Roxane Gay's Hunger, which is agonizing. I have about an hour to go.

On my nightstand now is Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, also a tough read but less so than the aforementioned audio memoir. I love her work.

At the gym I'm about halfway through Elif Batuman's academic memoir, The Possessed, which is fun, and features cover art by Roz Chast, so there's that.

Friday, September 1, 2017

You Should Definitely Read These Books This Fall

There are so many good books coming out this fall. This list isn't really everything you should read this fall- it's just my top picks. But you should read all of these, even if there are also other things you should read too.

Fiction

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas (September)
The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whitall (September)
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (September)
Belladonna, by Daša Drndic (September)
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (September)
Fever, by Deon Meyer (September)

Ferocity, by Nicola Legiola (October)
Madonna in a Fur Coat, by Sabahattin Ali (October)
Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn (October)

The Night Language, by David Rocklin (November)

Nonfiction

Marita: The Spy Who Loved Castro, by Marita Lorenz (September)
The Madeleine Project, by Clara Ledoux (September)


The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen  (October)
Renoir: An Intimate Biography, by Barbara Ehrlich White (October)
San Francisco's Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, by Lisa Riggin (currently on my nightstand) (October)