"Nicholas and Alexandra"

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

This account of the last Zsar and his family begins in 1894 and ends in 1918, but there are lots of stories from before that time filling out this jam-packed account of Russia's fascinating, if sometimes bloody, history. All I'd ever read was bad Zsar/good peasants accounts in school books, but knowing nothing is ever that simple I wanted to learn more. This book, published in 1967, looked intimidating but was instead a riveting story that kept me up reading late into the nights. What I thought was just another history book turned out to be so very much more.

Massie is truly a great writer. He makes history come alive and lets the reader feel like it's all happening to them, now. He has done extensive research, sources listed chapter by chapter at the back of the book, and shows us the Imperial family from all sides, good, bad, and ordinary. He takes us into their personal relationship as husband and wife, and their day-to-day family life with their five children. Knowing how the story ends makes it all the more poignant and real.

I learned more about Russian and European history than I ever expected to get from any book and the exceptional thing about it is that it never gets boring. Massie's writing is conversational, easy to read,  and grippingly interesting, even the political and military parts which can easily become dry when it's told only in facts and dates. When Massie relates a fact, he tells you about the people involved, who they were and why they did what they did, so you get not just the facts but an understanding of the situation. This is what draws you in and keeps you hooked.

As I got toward the end, after getting to know this family and what makes them tick, I didn't know if I could make myself read what was coming. I did decide to see it through and was relieved to see it told simply and quickly, without any of the long, drawn out sensationalizing of tragedy so prevalent in today's story telling. Now I'm putting off watching the movie, afraid they won't have shown the same restraint. Maybe one of you can tell me if I should watch it.

At the back of the book there are family trees for both Nicholas and Alexandra that were incredibly helpful, and the insides of both covers are maps of Russia so you can locate the different areas where the story is played out. There is also a section of family photographs in the book's center that I found myself referring to again and again. A couple of interesting things I learned from the family trees: 1. Queen Victoria is great great Grandmother to both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. 2. At the time of WW1, the King of England, The German Kaiser and the Zsar of Russia were all first cousins. In fact, just about all of Europe's royalty were and are related through Queen Victoria's offspring.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you like history or family sagas; politics, royalty, biography or intrigue; or even if you just want to get lost in a good (and true) story, I think you'll find what you're looking for in Nicholas and Alexandra.


Lydia by Clare Darcy

  • This is my first Clare Darcy novel.
  • It is, like the two Georgette Heyer novels I've read, a frothy Regency romance.
  • Plot: a young woman, her brother and their grandmother arrive in England for the purpose of improving their financial condition, through marriage or rich relatives, the method doesn't really matter. Lydia, beautiful and fiesty, is linked romantically with various wealthy suitors but falls for the one person she swears she could never be interested in. These novels all end the same so it's not really a spoiler to say that all the main characters end up with true love, great wealth and enviable social standing. No surprises, no sadness - that's why we read these books, right?
  • I like this time period in any novel, but I like those better that were actually written in that time. I know the authors of the newer ones do lots of research to make sure the fashion, manners, morals and language are authentic, but I feel like they're trying too hard. There are too many details brought to the reader's attention that don't advance the story in any way, and so much Regency slang used that it becomes tedious to read. All the tricks they use to make the novel authentic backfire and make it feel false. They sell though, and I guess that's the goal of the authors and the publishers. Jane Austen's wonderful books would probably get nowhere in today's publishing world.
  • I always find it disappointing, after reading a novel meant to convince me I'm experiencing life in a bygone era, to later discover it was written in 1973. That's not a critique, just a quirk of mine. I guess the reason I look in the first place is because something about the book doesn't feel authentic and it's a let down to find out there's a good reason for that. There are of course thousands of books set in history that are so well written you never even question the authenticity, but these are not those. 
  • Darcy and Heyer are authors I might turn to when I want to read something I don't have to think about, a harmless distraction from real life and weightier books. I may not read a lot of them (or I may, who knows...), but I am keeping their names on my go-to list for light reading. Very light reading. Not that there's anything wrong with that.  

"The Disappearing Spoon"

The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from The Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

  • The title describes the book perfectly. It's a wild ride through the periodic table with scads of stories about the elements themselves, the scientists who discovered them, and the way the elements are used in the world. Some funny, some serious, some mind-boggling.
  • Some pages were slow going for me but within another page or two I would always find something to catch my interest again and I'd be drawn back in. 
  • It's a goldmine of interesting tidbits you can use at your next book club or dinner party to impress people with your wonderful knowledge of sciency things.
  • Some of the chapter headings: 4.Where Atoms Come From:"We Are All Star Stuff"; 10.Take Two Elements, Call Me In The Morning; 11.How Elements Deceive; 12.Political Elements; 13.Elements As Money; 14.Artistic Elements; 15.An Element of Madness; 17.Spheres of Splendor:The Science of Bubbles. How could anyone not want to read this?
  • I recommend The Disappearing Spoon to anyone who is fascinated by science but not so much by dry textbooks. This book is fun.