Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon

Despite having watched (and enjoyed) the first season of Downton Abbey, when I saw a book about "the real Downton Abbey," I wasn't even remotely tempted to pick it up.

What changed my mind? I was really ambitious with signing up for reading challenges this year and my reading and blogging were derailed for most of winter and spring. My mother was in and out of the hospital for the better part of three months (she's fine), then I was sick (still tired, but in the process of bouncing back) and I found myself nearly halfway through the year with only three book reviews (one posted, two waiting to be posted) under my belt and way behind on my reading challenges. (Seriously, look at my challenge progress and laugh. You're more than welcome.) Anyway, so when I saw that Impressions in Ink had done a review of the the book for the War Through the Generations reading challenge, I grabbed a copy from the library immediately...and promptly ignored it until a couple of days before the book was due.

I've finally finished it and I can't believe it took me so long to finally read it. Since the book is written about Almina, Countess of Carnarvon and her home, Highclere Castle (better known as television's Downton Abbey) by Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, I assumed it would be a fluff piece attempting to cash in on the popularity of Downton Abbey.

Wrong. It was extremely well-written and well-researched. There are three distinct parts to the book. In the first part, pre-World War I, focuses on Almina's background as the illegitimate daughter of the extremely wealthy and influential Alfred de Rothschild; her marriage to the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; and her initial life as an extremely indulged and well-connected member of the nobility. The second part focuses on the events of World War I, including how it affected Highclere Castle and the activities of the family during World War I, including Almina's efforts to establish a hospital at Highclere. Finally, the last part of the book covers life after the war up to the death of the Almina's husband.

In the early part of the book, I was impressed. Almina and her family lived fascinating lives and the current Countess of Carnarvon did a wonderful job of making use of the family records available to her and adding insights about their activities. It was particularly interesting to see how much and how little things had changed at Highclere Castle. However, it was the second and third parts that truly impressed me. Based on the title, I had expected the book to focus only on Highclere Castle and the hospital that Almina ran during World War I. That alone would have been fascinating, since she didn't stop at just establishing a hospital (something many other society ladies were doing during World War I). She tried to establish the best hospital, both by attracting the best staff and purchasing the best equipment and by, as the author put it, treating the soldiers at Highclere Hospital as house guests in addition to patients. The author also covers the actual events of World War I, using both the experiences of the soldiers turned Highclere patients (her description of David Campbell's experiences at Gallipoli was particularly harrowing) and the experiences of the Carnarvon family (Aubrey Herbert, her husband's younger half-brother, played an important diplomatic role). This part is clearly well-researched and the descriptions are extremely powerful.

The final part of the book focuses mainly on her husband's role in the discovery of King Tut's tomb with Howard Carter (he had backed Carter financially for about fifteen years). Unfortunately, the press frenzy strained not only Carnarvon and Carter, but also their friendship. It also led to Carnarvon's death at 56 shortly before the discovery of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.

The writing style is wonderful. Even in the earlier, happier days, there's quite a bit of foreshadowing about the future. I've noticed that this ominous feeling is frequently there when I'm reading historical accounts leading up to particularly tragic events, but it was definitely well-done in this story. It helped to illustrate exactly how World War I led to a lost generation, mainly by mentioning the fates of Highclere men and acquaintances of the Carnarvon family who had joined the war effort. This is definitely not a fluff book and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in private Egyptian archeology, World War I, or life of English nobility during the first part of the twentieth century.

This book counts word the Support Your Local Library, War Through the Generations, and Non-Fiction, Non-Memoir challenges.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny

We'd been traveling for eight months, and all my inquiries had led nowhere. Though I now possessed his glasses, his shoes, and the description of a man unravelling in Edenburg. Perhaps I was the one unraveling?
-The Book of Madness and Cures

At the beginning of the novel, Gabriella is comfortable (if not happy) with her life as a woman doctor in late sixteenth-century Venice. Her father has been gone for ten years and her relationship with her mother is strained, though it seems that she could have continued this slightly unhappy if comfortable existence indefinitely. Two events force her into action. First, she received a letter from her father saying that he doesn't intend to return to Venice. Second, the Guild of Physicians informs her that they no longer support her membership without her father. She sets out to find her father by retracing his steps across Europe.

Even though Gabriella is thirty when the novel begins and is set in her life and career, it's still a coming of age story. In the beginning, Gabriella worships her father and has a strained relationship with her mother. She views Lorenzo and Olmina, the married couple who accompany her on her journey, as servants despite the fact that they had been with her since her birth and Olmina nursed Gabriella after her own daughter was stillborn. Gabriella has also given up on marriage following the death of her lover twelve years earlier. As the story unfolds and Gabriella learns more about her father and his apparent reasons for departing, she's forced to reconsider her relationship with both her mother and her father. She begins to see her father a regular, if flawed, person and as her view of her father changes, her view of her mother and her mothers' motivations also evolves. After a few of traveling with Lorenzo and Olmina, she also reexamines her relationship with them and their motivation for accompanying her on a difficult journey. And, of course, because it's such a common plot, she also encounters potential love interests who help to change her view on marriage and her future in that regard. Personally, the last element felt a little tacked on and obligatory, if not downright cliche. 

Initially, I had trouble getting into the story for some reason, but it was worth it. Watching Gabriella's growth was interesting, as was reading about her time in various cities. Throughout the book, there are excerpts from The Book of Diseases, a collection of illnesses that she is helping her father to finish. The excerpts gave insight not only into Gabriella's feelings, but also of the medicine of the era.

That said, as with a lot of similar novels, there was one major shortcoming. Gabriella and most other characters seemed a little too progressive. Very few of the people she encountered had a problem with the idea of a woman doctor or of a woman pretending to be a man (which happened a couple of times). Since Gabriella is following the travels of her father and staying with his acquaintances, this makes sense in a lot of cases because a man who trained his daughter as a doctor would presumably correspond with similarly progressive people. It makes less sense for people she randomly encounters. The views of Gabriella herself wouldn't be out of place today. I'm not an expert on the attitudes and beliefs of sixteenth century Venice, so it's entirely possible that Gabriella's attitude was reflective of the time. Also, if Gabriella has been a traditional woman, there wouldn't have been much of a novel since she would have just married and accepted her father's absence. Furthermore, I don't think the majority of readers would have enjoyed Gabriella discussing how she completely agreed with her city's decision to force Jews to live in ghettos. I also noticed that Gabriella tended to encounter fewer problems from other people as her journey progressed.

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that time period or reading about older medical treatment.

This book counts toward the Support Your Local Library Challenge and 2012 Debut Adult Fiction Author Challenge