Monthly Archives: October 2016

Book twenty: The Romanovs 1613-1918 #Montefiore

This a rare book review on this site as it’s not a fiction book.  I would like to say my interest in Russian history and in particular the Romanovs came from some intellectual observation about the growth of Russian power in the period 1613– 1918 and the similarities with the current government’s foreign policy.  But it didn’t.  In fact the first thing to catch my imagination were the rumours of the possible escape from members of the Cheka by Tsar Nicolas II’s youngest daughter Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.  And yes, my knowledge of these rumours came first from the 20th Century Fox animated film of 1997.

Whilst it might not be the most highbrow introduction to Russian history it did peak my interest and helped make sense of the disco hit Rasputin by Boney M!

Great timing or sheer coincidence I found myself earlier in the year in a bookshop a few days after the end of the BBC adaption of War and Peace.  Having been enchanted by it and wanting to know more I was immediately drawn to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book “The Romanovs”.  (The beautiful book cover is also a definitely draw – not that I judge books by their covers).  It’s taken me quite a few months to work my way through it but it has been a joy and incredibly informative.  Whilst I knew nothing of the growth of Mother Russia prior to reading this book I can now see similarities between President Putin and Russia’s historical leaders; a strong sense of state, a principle of absolute supremacy, a desire to have a strong role of the global stage but always mindful of the need for a strong military as everyone is or could be an enemy of the state.

The Romanovs remain the longest and most successful reigning family in modern times.  During their dynasty they ruled over q sixth of the world’s surface.  But how did they do it? And how did they lose it? In this book Montefiore introduces us to twenty tsars and tsarinas and a world of limitless power, empire-building, fierce rivalries, affairs of the heart and murder plots.

I have often struggled with non-fiction books in the past, finding them too academic focusing on the facts and missing a story-telling element.  Montefiore on the other hand has written a perfectly balanced book.  There is definitely not a shortage of facts, but I do feel his primary goal is to keep the flow of the story using footnotes to expand on the wider context and/or provide additional important facts. Whether this is a simple testament to the author’s ability or whether the Romanovs naturally lend themselves to stories it would be difficult to say without reading other books by Montefiore.

The books spans a long period and we are introduced to many characters both within and outside of the family.  I do not think it possible to remember every detail, name and position without reading more and committing significant time to study the period.  But, if you wish to have a general knowledge of the growth of the Romanov family and the role they played in the formation of Russia as we know it today then this is a very good starting point.

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Book nineteen: Shadowboxing with Bukowski #Kastin

Nicholas Kastinovich is a tormented young bookseller struggling to keep his bookstore afloat in the town of San Pedro.  Hassled by his father, ostracized more often than not by his wife his only joy comes from building his collection of books, imagining a brighter future with Katherine, a lady who visits the shop, and hoping for a clear indication of friendship from the infamous author Charles Bukowski, who lives in the area.

This is a book where our lead character is bared naked to the reader.  We are privy to his every thought, movement, irritation, desire and dream.   Narrated throughout by Kastinovich the story is honest and sad.  There is no glossing over depression, there is no hiding from the dispossessed feeling to the downtown area of San Pedro.  But somewhere within this melancholy there is hope and a belief that better things are still to come.

Any lover of books who has at one time or another found solace within the pages of a novel or even spent a day hidden away in a bookshop will immediately empathise with Kastinovich and understand why and how his books become such a lifeline for him.  The bookshop alone is his beacon for the brighter future.  When we are at our lowest, when we feel the world can offer us nothing, to a lover of books there is always a place to escape, there amongst the letters, words, paragraphs and chapters do we find our place.  Like a comfort blanket the words swirl around us and take us away from our misery.  Kastinovich is a character we can all identify with.

What I loved about this book is the honest and brutal narrative.  The style reminded me of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, one man pouring his heart out and over analysing life to us his captive audience.  I don’t know how other people read but for me characters have voices, I hear the tones and lilts within their speech as I read the book.  Kastinovich could only ever be voiced by one person in my opinion and that is David Sadaris.  Sadaris is well known for his autobiographical and self-deprecating humour which is a perfect match for our down trodden bookseller.

Whilst you feel for Kastinovich when things get tough there are also many times when you can’t help but will him to just grow some balls and take control of his situation.  There is a strong trait of self-pity in our leading character and I found myself in part waiting for the straw that would break the camel’s back and force him into action.

Ultimately very little happens in Shadowboxing with Bukowski – there is no great twist in the story, no climatic ending but there is a truth and openness.  On completing it I’m not moved like some books, my views have not been challenged and no thoughts have been provoked, but I’ve enjoyed spending time with Kastinovich.  It was sort of like having tea with a relative, it was hard going at times but you’re left feeling the other person got far more out of it than you and that’s ok.

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