stuff I read

Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944–1945 by Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Helmuth Caspar, Johannes, and Dorothea von Moltke, translated by Shelley Frisch

43437749._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
An NYRB Classics Original

Tegel prison, Berlin, in the fall of 1944. Helmuth James von Moltke is awaiting trial for his leading role in the Kreisau Circle, one of the most important German resistance groups against the Nazis. By a near miracle, the prison chaplain at Tegel is Harald Poelchau, a friend and co-conspirator of Helmuth and his wife, Freya. From Helmuth’s arrival at Tegel in late September 1944 until the day of his execution by the Nazis on January 23, 1945, Poelchau would carry Helmuth’s and Freya’s letters in and out of prison daily, risking his own life. Freya would safeguard these letters for the rest of her long life, much of it spent in Norwich, VT, from 1960 until her death in 2010.

Last Letters is a profoundly personal record of the couple’s love, faith, and courage in the face of fascism. Written during the final months of World War II, the correspondence is at once a collection of love letters written in extremis and a historical document of the first order. Published to great acclaim in Germany, this volume now makes this deeply moving correspondence available for the first time in English.

I read the description of Last Letters in the NYRB Classics catalog and knew immediately that I had to read it. Freya von Moltke had allowed other volumes of letters from her correspondence with her husband Helmuth James to be published during her lifetime but these letters, the very intimate letters exchanged while Helmuth was imprisoned by the Nazis, she only allowed to be published after her death in 2010. They are incredible.

This is not an easy book to read in one go – it’s a collection of letters between a couple that expected almost daily that he would be executed by the Nazis and contain minute details of Helmuth’s defense and Freya’s visits to various officials to try and get Helmuth released, so they do get a repetitive when read all at once, one after the other. But their discussions of faith and love, reminiscences about their children and family, regrets, and heart-felt farewells in each letter are truly moving. Each of these letters was smuggled into and out of Tegel prison by the prison chaplain, a close friend, at risk to his own life (also included here are a few of the “official” letters that Helmuth and Freya exchanged via the usual prison mail route to avoid raising suspicion).

Reading this collection makes one wonder if one could place themselves at risk, knowing the stakes, if in the same situation the von Moltkes and their friends were in during WWII. Would I place my family in danger to deliver these letters? Or even to be a member of a group like the Kreisau Circle? These letters give so much insight into how Helmuth leaned on his faith and prayer, and supported Freya as she struggled with her own faith, during his imprisonment, right up until his execution. His execution date was kept secret so there is no real “end” to the letters, merely a note that Freya’s final letter was not received before Helmuth’s death. This is an incredibly intimate collection of letters. We are so lucky they were preserved.

Last Letters is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, Sally Wainwright (Foreword), read by Eva Hope and Erin Shanager

46749454._SX318_Summary from Goodreads:
In 1834, two women openly celebrated their marriage to one another for the first time in British history. This is their remarkable story, now the basis for a major new eight-part HBO series.

Gentleman Jack offers a remarkable and unlikely love story, set in the complex, changing world of Halifax – the cradle of the industrial revolution. After years of exotic travel, Anne Lister returns home in 1832, determined to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home Shibden Hall. To restore Shibden to its former glory, Anne must re-open her coal mines and marry well. But charismatic, single-minded, swashbuckling Anne Lister – who dressed head-to-toe in black and charmed her way into high society – has no intention of marrying a man. For Anne has set her sights on the wealthy socialite, Ms. Ann Walker. Relying on never-before-published entries from Lister’s coded diaries, historian Anne Choma brings to life this momentous period in the life of an 18th century landowner, industrialist, explorer, lesbian, and feminist icon.

I originally picked up Gentleman Jack in paperback, but saw the library audio was available – which is really interesting because they got a second narrator to read the longer diary excerpts. She used a Yorkshire accent, so we got to hear something approaching Anne Lister’s own accent. It’s a wee bit boring in places, since this is book concentrating on letters and a diary so it is hard for the biographer to “plot” the book. However, Anne is a fascinating contradiction of a woman and this is an excellent companion to the TV series.

Dear FTC: I read an audiobook edition of this book from the library and bought a copy when it came out in paperback.

stuff I read

Figuring by Maria Popova

40277347Summary from Goodreads:
Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries–beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.

Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists–mostly women, mostly queer–whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman–and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

I was really interested in Figuring because of Popova’s Brain Pickings writing. And the book doesn’t disappoint, but it did take a while to get rolling. For the first third or so of the book I wasn’t quite sure what Popova was really getting at. There were a lot of historical figures surrounding her “main” subjects and I was having a little bit of trouble keeping up with the jumps back and forth (and I kept confusing Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller, oops). But then Popova got to her chapters on Emily Dickinson and just wow. Blew me away. That was when the book began to gel for me and I started to really understand that Popova was drawing all these parallels between geniuses ahead of their times, their successes and set-backs, the rich relationships they formed (some romantic, some not, some that could be considered queer, some more “conventional”), and how their work creates a web from generation to generation, from Kepler to Dickinson to Rachel Carson. This is not a book to rush through – you’ll want to savor it.

Figuring is out on Tuesday, February 5, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Reading Women · stuff I read

Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

33894921Summary from Goodreads:
From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.

I picked up a galley of Victoria the Queen at BEA in 2016 and it, unfortunately, has been in a pile of to-read books ever since. But I recently found it on the library’s Libby site, so I decided to give it a read. Baird has done a remarkable job reconstructing the inner life of a woman whose family and official biographers tried to mold into the myth she had become. Victoria was remarkably contradictory in her views, believing that she had the right to tell her ministers what to do and shape foreign policy yet felt inferior to her husband and didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, etc. (which I was surprised to learn).

(The audiobook narrator was dreadfully slow – I had the speed kicked up to 2.25x by the end – and had terrible German pronunciation.)

Dear FTC: I had a galley of this book from BEA but wound up borrowing the audiobook from the library.

mini-review · stuff I read

Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure by Jenny Wormald

34957541Summary from Goodreads:
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was one of history’s romantically tragic figures. Devious, naïve, often highly principled, beautiful, and sexually voracious, this was a woman who secured the Scottish throne and bolstered the position of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Her endless plotting, including a likely involvement in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley, eventually led to her flight from Scotland and imprisonment by her equally ambitions cousin and fellow queen, Elizabeth of England. And yet when Elizabeth ordered her unpredictable rival and kinswoman to be beheaded in 1587 she did so in resigned frustration rather than as act of political wrath.Was the beheading of a cousin truly necessary? Did Mary, though churlish, petulant, and often disloyal, really deserve to forfeit the compassion of her cousin, a woman who from childhood had been her friend and playmate? Mary’s fate was to be born to supreme power, but she was totally lacking in the political ability to deal with its responsibilities. This was the tragedy that turned her life into a study in failure. The extraordinary story of Mary, which has inspired the great poets, playwrights, and operatic composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, is one of the most colorful and emotionally searing tales of western history, and is here told by a leading specialist of the 16th century.

I was listening to Book Riot’s For Real podcast, when co-host Alice mentioned a biography of Mary Queen of Scots that she particularly liked: Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure.

Check out that subtitle! I had to read it.

Now, this isn’t a very long book, but it is one that requires a lot of the reader. Wormald focuses very narrowly on Mary’s actual performance as Queen regnant and far, far less on the romantic or tragic elements of her life. Along the way, Wormald assumes that the reader has a decent grasp of the history and political situation in Stewart Scotland as well as that of France, Spain, England, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the biographies of the major players. If you don’t, well, that’s what Google is for. I really appreciated how Wormald attempted to suss out whether Mary could have actually survived as a ruler in Scotland as Elizabeth I did in England. I enjoyed this book immensely.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy, obviously.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley

31450766Summary from Goodreads:
“Jane Austen at Home offers a fascinating look at Jane Austen’s world through the lens of the homes in which she lived and worked throughout her life. The result is a refreshingly unique perspective on Austen and her work and a beautifully nuanced exploration of gender, creativity, and domesticity.”–Amanda Foreman, bestselling author of Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire
Take a trip back to Jane Austen’s world and the many places she lived as historian Lucy Worsley visits Austen’s childhood home, her schools, her holiday accommodations, the houses–both grand and small–of the relations upon whom she was dependent, and the home she shared with her mother and sister towards the end of her life. In places like Steventon Parsonage, Godmersham Park, Chawton House and a small rented house in Winchester, Worsley discovers a Jane Austen very different from the one who famously lived a ‘life without incident’.
Worsley examines the rooms, spaces and possessions which mattered to her, and the varying ways in which homes are used in her novels as both places of pleasure and as prisons. She shows readers a passionate Jane Austen who fought for her freedom, a woman who had at least five marriage prospects, but–in the end–a woman who refused to settle for anything less than Mr. Darcy.
Illustrated with two sections of color plates, Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home is a richly entertaining and illuminating new book about one of the world’s favorite novelists and one of the subjects she returned to over and over in her unforgettable novels: home.

Jane Austen at Home is a lovely, meticulously-constructed biography of Jane Austen that uses the location and atmosphere of Austen’s homes – from Steventon, to Bath, to Lyme, to Godmersham, to Southampton, to Chawton, to London, and finally Winchester – as a jumping off point to examine how these physical places tell us about Austen’s life. Worsley also examines how the single, impoverished women of the Austen family and their friends/near relations stuck together to create a found family of their own.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book when it came out and have been savoring it very slowly.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen by Deborah Hopkinson

34972694Summary from Goodreads:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.

But before that, she was just an ordinary girl.

In fact, young Jane was a bit quiet and shy; if you had met her back then, you might not have noticed her at all. But she would have noticed you. Jane watched and listened to all the things people around her did and said and locked those observations away for safekeeping.

Jane also loved to read. She devoured everything in her father’s massive library, and before long she began creating her own stories. In her time, the most popular books were grand adventures and romances, but Jane wanted to go her own way . . . and went on to invent an entirely new kind of novel.

Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng have collaborated on a gorgeous tribute to an independent thinker who turned ordinary life into extraordinary stories and created a body of work that has delighted and inspired readers for generations.

I did not now how badly I wanted an adorable children’s picture book biography of Jane Austen until someone wrote an adorable children’s picture book biography of Jane Austen.

img_9325Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is a beautiful book illustrated by Qin Leng’s delicate artwork.  Look at little tiny Jane and her bookstack! Ahhhhh! (Yes, yes, the clothing styles aren’t quite right for Austen’s childhood, but it’s too, too cute. RIP me.) There’s a lot of girl power and reading all the books you want overlaid over the basic timeline of Austen’s life. Being a picture book, it doesn’t get very in-depth as a biography but I think it’s just right. Definitely a book to pick up for Janeites of all ages.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is out tomorrow from Balzer + Bray.

Dear FTC: A fellow bookseller got me this picture book galley and it is the CUTEST thing ever. (Camille!!!! You are the best xoxo)

mini-review · stuff I read

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

33413920Summary from Goodreads:
Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always—until now—tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.

A Secret Sisterhood is a set of four short biographies about a specific female, literary friendship in the lives of Britain’s four greatest female writers: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. (George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were besties, yo #goals.)

I really, really want to like this book more than I do. I like the concept of this book – reconstructing the literary friendships of major 19th century/early 20th English lady writers is something I will always be down for – but I feel the construction of the book brings it down. The authors try to walk a line between straight literary biography and historical fiction. There are imagined scenes of the women’s lives interspersed with sentences drawn from letters and diaries and that juxtaposition almost never works for me. I would have preferred a much more straightforward literary biography, personally, with longer quotes from the primary source material. Also some notation/citations in the text would have been nice (I had a digital galley that appeared very close to the finished product without notation so perhaps the finished copies have that.)

A Secret Sisterhood is out next week, October 17, in the US if you want to check it out.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.