Anna Vyrubova's memoir is a truly fascinating book. She gives you a good overview of what daily life was like in the Romanov court, and her perspectiv...moreAnna Vyrubova's memoir is a truly fascinating book. She gives you a good overview of what daily life was like in the Romanov court, and her perspective is one you're not likely to encounter elsewhere. According to Vyrubova, the atmosphere in Russia during the years of World War I, the Kerensky regime, and the early days of the Bolsheviks was so full of out-of-control paranoia, wild rumor, and myth deliberately created to help violent, conniving men claw their way into power, that much of what people believe--even today--about the Tsar, his wife, and Rasputin, is utter nonsense.
She portrays the Tsar and Tsaritsa as decent, likeable people unable to prevent or cope with Russia's great trainwreck of history, and she says Rasputin was not a monster at all, but a genuinely good man whose one fault was the typical Russian one of drinking too much from time to him. According to the author, Rasputin did not have a 'harem' of wealthy ladies, took no bribes, and gave so much of his own money away to the poor that he died in poverty himself. Everything about Rasputin, Vyrubova says, was well-known to the government because of the extremely thorough investigations of the Russian secret police, and their reports to the Tsar always gave Rasputin a clean record.
Surprisingly, Vyrubova does not blame the Bolsheviks or the Kerensky regime very much for the direction of events, but lays most of the censure on a scheming Russian aristocracy, especially the Grand Dukes. These self-interested individuals had been hostile to the Tsar and Tsaritsa for a very long time before World War I even started, and it was Russia's upper class that eventually pulled off the coup that forced the Tsar to abdicate during a low point in morale during the war. They were the main source of the wild rumors against Rasputin and the royal family, and these tales were deliberately spread to poison public opinion against the royal couple to destroy them, despite the fact that these tales smeared many innocent bystanders, including the author. Vyrubova notes that if Russia could have stayed in the war a little longer, the country would have enjoyed a victory under the Tsar's leadership, since Germany was nearing the collapse that resulted in its defeat.
Vyrubova's memoir ends with the gruesome story of her repeated imprisonments, despite investigations that always cleared her name. Neither Kerensky nor the Bolsheviks were pleased to be told she was innocent, and were so convinced by the lingering rumors planted by the aristocracy--rumors that could not be eradicated from the collective public memory no matter what--that they kept rearresting her under trumped-up charges. Eventually, Vyrubova escaped and lived on the run before she could finally make her way to Finland and freedom.
If you're a Romanov-disaster fan (a species somewhat akin to Custer fans and Titanic fans), then this is the book for you.(less)
The strongest and most interesting part of the book was the author's description of his childhood in China. He's sketchier about his years in Madame M...moreThe strongest and most interesting part of the book was the author's description of his childhood in China. He's sketchier about his years in Madame Mao's Dance Academy, and I for one would have appreciated learning more about what's involved in a dancer's professional training. No doubt that part would be boring to the author, though, since it seems to consist of a great deal of drill. On his life in the US, he's sketchier yet, though there are many dramatic scenes. In one sense, this is 'male writing.' He's not terribly interested in describing the people he meets, or delving into their personalities. Some of it may be because the author is trying to be circumspect, and feels he's in debt to too many people. The book is a solid and interesting piece of reading. (less)
I read this book with sympathy, but I can't help but wonder at the sheer stupidity and lack of preparation showed by the settlers in Calof's book in t...moreI read this book with sympathy, but I can't help but wonder at the sheer stupidity and lack of preparation showed by the settlers in Calof's book in their chosen way of life out on the North Dakota prairies. It didn't seem to occur to any of them to get a job in town and accumulate some capital before trying to homestead. The financial sufferings the author described would have been less far severe, and their living conditions less squalid and inhuman. Despite this, Calof's memoir is a genuinely interesting read.
She was working as a maid in Russia, and was sent off to America by relatives who didn't want her to burdened with her, and locked into an arranged marriage. Without knowing the man who was to become her husband, she agreed to homestead with him out on a claim in northeast North Dakota, which is one of the coldest places in winter that can be imagined.
Giving birth in a dirt-floored single-roomed shack, in freezing temperatures in the midst of blizzards, surrounded by nutty and feckless in-laws, with all the livestock, everyone and everything packed into this one room for an entire winter, was horrible to endure. Calof's in-laws were, on the whole, selfish, ineffectual, superstitious, and a pain in the neck. I suspect Calof may have written this memoir to get back at all the people who had mistreated her in life, and from her description, they certainly deserved it.
Listened to this on audiobook and thought it good account of the life of an autistic savant. You do get the impression his parents were blockheads, ho...moreListened to this on audiobook and thought it good account of the life of an autistic savant. You do get the impression his parents were blockheads, however. (less)
I like food writing more than most people do, but this book is frustrating. Nguyen focuses on the topic of food to the exclusion of what ought to be t...moreI like food writing more than most people do, but this book is frustrating. Nguyen focuses on the topic of food to the exclusion of what ought to be the more important part of this memoir, namely her relationship with her family. She also gives you the impression she's doing this so she can avoid discussing how difficult her upbringing was. The author's a real bundle of psychological displacement and repression mechanisms. (less)