Author Spotlight: Robert K. Massie’s Biographies On Tsarist Russia

When I discovered Robert K. Massie’s books on tsarist Russia’s Romanov family I realized I had struck historical nonfiction gold.

Tragically, the author’s interest in the Romanov dynasty began with the discovery that his own newborn son suffered from hemophilia, a disease which also affected tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexis Nikolaevich.

You might expect a pedantic writing style from a Yale and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar, but Massie brings his training as a journalist to his prose. What results is highly-accessible and still richly-evocative portraits of some of Russia’s most storied tsars and tsarinas.

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Nicholas And Alexandra: The Classic Account Of The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty

Published: 1967, reissued November 2011
Length: 673 pages

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Though published in the 1960s, Nicholas and Alexandra remains the definitive account of the lives of the last Romanov Tsar and Tsarina. It starts with the improbable story of how a Princess from a small German state was selected to become Empress of Russia. Alexandra’s strong, overbearing personality is contrasted to her husband’s relatively weak demeanor, and her influence essentially directs his political decisions. The happiness of the couple at producing a male heir (after four daughters) is short-lived with the discovery he suffers from the then deadly disease of hemophilia. As mystical faith healer Rasputin’s influence on Alexandra increases due to her distress over her sons’s illness, the Russian people’s disaffection with their distant monarchs propels the country towards a revolution that will ultimately spell a bloody end for the Romanov dynasty. I couldn’t put this book down.

 

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The Romanovs: The Final Chapter

Published: 1995, reissued February 2012
Length: 320 pages

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Considered in part a more recent update to Nicholas and Alexandra’s story, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter also stands on its own as a chilling scientific account of the efforts to recover and identify the purported remains of the Romanov family.

After the demise of Soviet Communism brought to light the prior 1979 discovery of the possible grave of the Romanov royals, an examination of the remains was conducted by an international team of forensic specialists to determine their authenticity. Massie adds details to the tragic story of the capture, prisony and assassination of the Romanovs and of the expert effort to determine the provenance of these remains. Interweaved is also a thorough analysis of Anna Anderson’s claims to be Nicholas and Alexandra’s remaining living daughter Anastasia.

 

51aCH9YCAoLCatherine The Great: Portrait Of A Woman

Published: November 2011
Length: 656 pages

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Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Nonfiction in 2012

Though empress Alexandra’s story of rise from unknown German princess to Russian tsarina is remarkable, Catherine The Great’s similar beginnings led to an even more incredible result. After being plucked from relative obscurity and married to Russian heir to the throne Peter III, Catherine quickly realized her husband was no match for her strength of character or intelligence. Unable to count on him as an effective ruler on his ascension or even as a viable partner to produce an heir, Catherine took matters into her own hands. While Peter was still alive, she took a lover to secure the royal family’s line of succession and then orchestrated a coup d’etat after his assassination, installing herself as empress. She became the longest ruling female monarch in Russia and her reign is often considered as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.

 

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Peter The Great: His Life And World

Published: 1980, reissued February 2012
Length: 928 pages

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize For Biography in 1981

Peter The Great’s rule established the Romanov dynasty, preceding that of all other tsars and tsarinas covered in Massie’s books. Through significant territorial gains, Peter turned Russia into an empire and speerheaded a series of Enlightenment inspired reforms that modernized the country’s military,its educational system and its government, transforming Russia into a great European nation in its own right.

This is actually the only one of Massie’s books on tsarist Russia that I have yet to read. Now that I’ve been reminded of how much I loved reading his other works, I’m adding it to my short term list.

 

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Links I Loved This Week

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  • I really liked this post about how to create your Zen-Den on Best Kept Self. My morning yoga and meditation routines have been feeling a little haphazard, and I think some of these suggestions might help with getting in the right mood.
  • Starbucks granitas now available after 3PM. Coffee granita? Don’t mind if I do.
  • Orecchiette may just be my favorite shape of pasta and this simple summer recipe that pairs them with cherry tomatoes and arugula looks dee-licious.
  • This white hydrangea iphone background. Changing mine immediately.
  • A VERY tongue-in-cheek article about how hard it is for women in the workforce to strike the right balance between being assertive and pushy – 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies For Women.
  • This is worth a rewatch. Michelle Obama, ladies and gentlemen.
  • I’m always looking for a new easy toast idea to make for lunch or dinner, and A Cup Of Jo’s Tomato And Hummus Tartine is making me salivate.
  • Pretty much my exact workout philosophy, so I really connected with this article. Dance parties in your room 100% count as exercise.
  • This wonderful art print. Make sure to always water your own garden first.

1000 Novels Series: Bleak House and Rebecca

Though I’ve read most of the usual suspects as far as literary classics are concerned, I wanted to broaden my reading to less known classic titles, including more modern novels as well.

I searched online for a good comprehensive book list to work from and found The Guardian’s list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.

Two by two, I’ll review as many books as I can from this list, while I get through them. I’ve unbelievably only read 64 so far though there were several on the list that I *thought* I read a long time ago but wasn’t sure.

Here are the first two reviews – I absolutely loved both novels.

51OSlFe0I+L Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Available for free on Amazon Kindle!

I confess that the only novel I’d read by Charles Dickens before this one was A Tale Of Two Cities. Bleak House felt very different both in topic and in tone. My main reason for tackling Bleak House was that I really wanted to see the TV series (available on Amazon Prime), but not without first reading the original.

The story is based on the intertwining destinies of three orphans – Esther Summerson, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone – and their guardian John Jarndyce. The legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce serves as backdrop and heavily weighs on their futures, involving Ada and Richard directly as potential heirs. The mystery of Esther’s birth and the scandal that follows its revelation add considerable tension, while she’s also kept busy dealing with multiple suitors for her hand.

The result is a suspenseful saga of perdition for some and revelation for others – which, with its ‘bleak’ English weather would make a great rainy day read. Any fans of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy will find themselves right at home.

 

41ufEpPh-WL._SY346_Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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Rebecca tells the story of a young and naive 20-something woman who falls in love with and marries affluent widower Maxim De Wintour. What starts as an oddly matched love story builds into a thrilling mystery as the figure of Maxim’s former accidentally-drowned wife Rebecca hovers over the newlyweds’ relationship. As our heroine tries to settle into a routine in Maxim’s Cornwall estate of Manderley, the reader learns more about each of our characters – both dead and alive – and they morph like figures in a fun-house, until the final resolution of the mystery.

I didn’t research what to expect from Rebecca before diving into it, and I was definitely surprised at how dark the book ended up being in parts. It’s also full of lusciously beautiful descriptions of the gardens and ocean coves at Manderley though, which act as counterpoint to the tenseness of the atmosphere between the characters and the spookiness of the story. It made me want to read more from the author soon. Her other popular novels include My Cousin Rachel and Jamaica Inn.

 

The next two books on the list I’m planning on tackling are Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood if you’d like to read along with me.

 

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30 Things To Do On Staycation

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On Friday I’m heading home to visit my family in Milan. For most people this wouldn’t count as staycation, but I actually grew up in Milan, so visiting my family there is like going home for me.

I don’t know about you but I almost like staycations better than actual vacations. Sometimes you really need to either do nothing, or catch up on all the little things you wish you had time for but never do.

During a typical two-week vacation in Milan, I wander around the city (in the sweltering August heat) in a way I rarely have the chance to do in LA. Of course, I also spend a hefty amount of time reading, catching up with family, and reconnecting with some habits I may have neglected.

 

If you’re taking some time off for a staycation this summer or fall, practice slow living and let yourself indulge in some of the suggestions below:

 

  1. Bake a treat for someone you love
  2. Have a gelato (or some frozen yogurt)
  3. Try a new restaurant (order in for extra lazy points)
  4. Do an extra long meditation (try Buddhify)
  5. Hit the mini golf course
  6. Go hiking
  7. Watch your favorite childhood cartoon
  8. Read your heart out (bonus points if outdoors, on a blanket in a park)
  9. Download some new podcasts (like The Paper Year)
  10. Journal every day
  11. Stroll slowly through your local Farmers market
  12. Buy yourself some flowers and take time arranging them
  13. Explore your neighborhood and try a new bakery or coffee place
  14. Volunteer (The LA Regional Food Bank is my favorite option)
  15. Visit a museum
  16. Have an extra long conversation with a family member you miss
  17. Get your bowling shoes on
  18. Find an outdoor movie to watch
  19. Try that yoga video you never got around to (I follow Yoga With Adriene)
  20. Give yourself a Mani-Pedi
  21. Drive out to an amusement park for the day
  22. Board game night (if there’s Rummikub or Apples To Apples I’m there)
  23. Go to an aquarium
  24. Clean out your wardrobe (ahhh, doesn’t that feel better?)
  25. Do a crossword or four
  26. Color like you’re five again (The Secret Garden coloring book)
  27. Walk through every aisle at Target
  28. Start a bullet journal
  29. Tackle a home project you’ve been avoiding (filing anyone?)
  30. Learn the constellations and look for shooting stars

 

And as a bonus, here are a few of the books I’m planning to read during my staycation (links below).

 

 

The Amazing Journey Of American Women From 1960  To The Present by Gail Collins

The Quiet Room: A Journey Out Of The Torment Of Madness by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennet

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

Margaret Thatcher: The Authobiography by Margaret Thatcher

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalnithi

I Forgot To Remember by Su Meck and Daniel De Visé

 

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Let The Games Begin! Books About The Olympics

Since the Olympics are starting this Friday (go Italy!), I thought I’d review two great books I’ve recently read on the topic.

The first deals with the fallout from preparations in Brazil for the past 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympics.

51fzedw2LCLBrazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy

by Dave Zirin  

If you want to just enjoy the Olympics as a spectacle of global athleticism, don’t read this book. It cuts straight through to the destructive potential of world tournaments like the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic, following their devastating effects on Brazil’s already corrupt government and residents of urban slums in Rio. Scandals in this year’s Olympics continue to this day, with warnings of insufficient security and unfinished facilities, so this is very much a developing story.

Amazon Kindle        Amazon Paperback

 

 

The second book tells the story of a team of American rowers who famously ended up winning gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown

Aside from being a great underdog story – following nine regular American Joe’s as they beat Adolf Hitler’s rowing team – The Boys In The Boat has a quiet power to it that I was mesmerized by. Before the roaring success of the final Olympics chapters, the story winds quietly around main character Joe Rantz as he tries to make ends meet, rebuild a family for himself after his has dissolved, and still show up for morning after ice-cold morning of rowing practice.

Amazon Kindle        Amazon Paperback

 

I enjoyed both books tremendously and am looking forward to taking some time to do a little additional Olympics reading this weekend. Some of my potential picks are below:

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Dancing With The Devil In The City Of God: Rio De Janeiro On The Brink

By Juliana Barbassa

Amazon Kindle       Amazon Paperback

 

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The Games: A Global History Of The Olympics

by David Goldblatt

Amazon Kindle       Amazon Hardcover

 

 

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Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

by Jeremy Schaap

Amazon Kindle  (only $2.29)      Amazon Paperback

 

 

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Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith

by Gabrielle Douglas and Michelle Burford

Amazon Kindle        Amazon Paperback

 

 

 

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Six Unbelievable Books About Scientology

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I have a confession to make – I’m addicted to reading about cults, especially Scientology. There’s something riveting in the stories coming out of the ‘religion’ by people who  have escaped its clutches.

Here are six of the most popular titles on the topic – 3 of which I’ve read and loved, and 3 of which are on my short term reading list.                                                                                                           

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Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape

by Jenna Miscavige Hill

This is my favorite Scientology memoir so far. Jenna’s experience as niece of Scientology’s current leader – David Miscavige – is one of a kind. Raised in the church and becoming a member of the Sea Org at a young age, Jenna faced incredible abuse when she decided to challenge the church’s precepts. If you only ever read one book about Scientology, make it Jenna’s memoir.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 

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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief 

by Lawrence Wright

A great overview on the origins and current practices of the church of Scientology, this book was my introduction to the religion/cult. It was also the basis for a critically acclaimed HBO documentary by the same title that is available for streaming on HBO Now. If you’re looking for a broad and complete intro to Scientology, this is the perfect place to start.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 

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Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me 

by Ron Miscavige and Dan Koon

I’m planning on tackling Ron Miscavige’s book during my trip home to Milan this August. Learning about Scientology has convinced me that David Miscavige is an equal parts mysterious and frightening figure, and I can’t wait to learn about his father’s take on his son’s meteoric ascent as new head of the church.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 
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Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology

by Leah Remini

I just finished Leah Remini’s memoir – it was a quick read. Leah had a ‘normal’ experience being brought up in Scientology, until her rising fame as a sitcom star placed her in the same ranks as other Scientology celebrity members. I found her take on Tom Cruise’s status in the church and her account of Tom’s wedding with Katie Holmes particularly scandalous.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 

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Blown For Good: Behind The Iron Curtain Of Scientology

by Marc Headley

Blown For Good is next on my Scientology reading list, after Ruthless. I’m expecting it to be just as absorbing as Jenna Miscavige’s memoir, as Marc Headley was also a Sea Org member and therefore subject to some of the most unbelievably abusive aspects of Scientology. His escape from a church compound on his motorcycle and the ensuing chase have the makings of a great action movie.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 

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Inside Scientology: The Story Of America’s Most Secret Religion

by Janet Reitman

It’s been a few years since I read Going Clear, and I’m interested in tackling this other overview of Scientology by Janet Reitman for a refresher on the church’s origins and also potentially new information about its practices. With over 200 5-star reviews on Amazon, I’m expecting to be impressed.

Amazon Kindle     Amazon Paperback

 

 

 

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