"The Flight of Romanovs: A Family Saga" by John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov

Ah yes, Romanovs again. 
I was actually reading something else completely (another of my self-imposed classics of the month) but as usual, it became so difficult and excessively long-winded that eventually I found myself putting it away until I might be in the right frame of mind and trough the whole month of April simply took my time to see will I became inspired to pick it up again - I didn't, but than by chance I found this book and voilà gulped it with a greatest pleasure, since I had big passion for everything about Russian history. Actually, I love history in general and more I learn about it, more I realise how much is there to discover. A lifetime is not enough to soak in all the information, memoirs and reassessments. Every now and than, some new information come to the light of the day and we see things from different perspective.

If the title had not already been used elsewhere, this book could have been titled "Gone with the Wind": it describes a particular time in Russian history when all-powerful Romanovs found themselves at the centre of the whirlwind and in a just few short years the life as they knew it was completely swept away, while the main protagonists had to run for their lives, trough ice and snow, sometimes on foot, carrying only a few possessions to avoid arrests and torture. It is a very ambitious saga with decidedly wide task to describe not just main characters we all know (Emperor and his family, Rasputin) but the whole Romanov family with its countless cousins, relatives and the rest of extended family, who they were and what was their role in downfall. In fact, authors don't waste too much space on Nicholas II, his wife Alix or any of people who were already subjects of other biographies, instead they relished stories from different palaces, other perspectives and other Romanovs who were also there, sometimes in completely different part of the empire. What happened to them, how they reacted to the political turbulence and what they did as penniless refugees is the subject of this book. 

At first, it does feel a bit complex, because there are so many of Romanovs and sometimes its almost too difficult to remember who is who (if I remember correctly, at certain point we are dealing with 65 individuals) but once you get the grip on a story and Bolsheviks finally appear like some unstoppable deluge, its actually impossible to put the book down. Its pointless to be clever in hindsight and claim any of them should have known or done differently - for the longest time these people were on pedestal and never expected life around them will explode in a chaos, anarchy and fire. In general, seems that Romanov women showed far more strength and spirit than men (who were, ironically, trained as army officers) so once the survivors found themselves in different parts of the world, it was female relatives who found the jobs and persisted with survival, while majority of husbands had no real practical knowledge about anything. Fascinating, insightful and illustrated with pictures from private collections, like any family saga, this book feels occasionally gossipy but the sheer seriousness of the historical moment makes it worth reading several times. 


"Wise Woman Blues (1943-1945)" by Dinah Washington

From one blues mama to another.

Just like so many other music aficionados, I first knew great, late Queen of the Blues from her late 1950s hits arranged by  Belford Hendricks where surrounded with strings and backing chorus she crooned ballads like "What a Diff'rence a Day Made", "Unforgettable" and "This Bitter Earth"  - these were massive pop hits that catapulted her into super stardom and signalled upward mobility of sorts, where all the previous rough edges were smoothed over and transition into wide market made possible by leaving risque R&B material behind. Even in that sugary framework Washington was surprisingly earthy and sassy, so its very rewarding to dive in her back catalogue and discover where exactly she came from before she hit the commercial jackpot. After all, she was known as 1950s Queen of the Jukebox and had huge following long before metamorphosing into torch singer.

These - some of the earliest recordings she had ever made - present shockingly young 19. years old singer surrounded with the big band orchestras, because this is how in those days vocalists had to start. There are Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus and Milt Jackson around her, so youngster was in a seriously heavy league although none of songs given to her was really outstanding - they sound like good-hearted and lightweight R&B fun created for dance and probably this is what they were. What is very interesting (besides the sound of her baby quack) is that from the very start, Washington was given the role of sassy mama with an attitude - although she didn't write lyrics herself, there have must been something in her that either gravitated towards this kind of material or people perceived her as such, because she is constantly on defence, attacking her treacherous lover and snarling with that sweet, young voice. It is very unusual for girl singers of the time because most of them were cooing and whispering, where Washington hisses and shows fangs. It is also psychologically interesting because obviously she lived with (and trough) these kind of songs and not surprisingly they went under her skin, making her personal relationships difficult - even when later she embraced romantic ballads, there was always a dangerous edge and defiance in them and as we know, that independence and strength that made Washington so successful in business proved to be intimidating for most of the men in her life. Amongst early recordings with Lionel Hampton there are war-time hits "No Love No Nothin" and "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine"  but the real dessert here is live performance with Duke Ellington on "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me"  - this is the sound of much older and commanding Washington who roars above orchestra, still playful but dangerous. 


"Complete Recorded Works, vol. 1" by Ida Cox (1923)

Although Empress Bessie Smith might be literary the only one still remembered from all her 1920s contemporaries, the field of classic Blues - that curious moment in popular music history when vaudeville artists collaborations with Jazz artists were recorded for the first time and simultaneously launched not just a new music trend that was nicknamed "Blues"  but also careers of first black music superstars - was filled with great talents and if you scratch the surface, the genre can be wondrous treasure of interesting music that, preserved on records, shows how much we were subsequently influenced with it and how, even with a century between us, spiritually we are very much connected with these great trailblazers.

This generous and lovingly assembled compilation of her complete 1923. recordings presents great Ida Cox in a full glory of her power. Although coming from basically very much the same background as both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (they all escaped crushing poverty and racism of deep South, performed in travelling minstrel shows and went trough apprenticeship in famous tent show Rabbit Foot Minstrels) Cox was not influenced by them, in fact her music persona was so strongly defined that there is nobody around like her - if Rainey was a good-hearted mother of Blues and Smith had that spectacularly powerful voice, Cox was the genres first true vamp who boasted about her sexual appetites and independence. Sure, all three were by sheer force of necessity self-made businesswomen and shared similar fierce spirit but once you hear Cox, its clear how much everybody else followed in her footsteps. Because at the time when she recorded these, her first recordings in 1923 Cox was already a seasoned performer (she run away with travelling show at fourteen) what we hear here is grown woman with completely polished and carefully created image of big, bad sexy mama who not only faces her lover but demands her satisfaction. "Love me daddy, love me all the time, love me till I pass away"  she sings in famous "Lovin' Is The Thing I'm Wild About"  and little later claims "I Love My Man Better Than I Love Myself".  With her instantly recognizable, strong nasal voice and Lovie Austin playing piano behind her, Cox is truly in her element - most of these recordings are piano-and-voice only but towards the end of 1923 "Paramount records" gave her support of solid Jazz band, however singer is constantly in the spotlight as true "Uncrowned Queen of Blues" which was not just promotional gimmick but surprisingly honest description of her talent - she was giant in her field and deserves to be remembered.

Perhaps inadvertently, Cox inspired later movie star Mae West who basically created her man-eating, sex symbol image by soaking in Ida Cox music and  later in 1939 you can find opening line of Cox's "Ida Cox's Lawdy, Lawdy Blues"  deferentially quoted by Billie Holiday on her own recording titled "Long Gone Blues" ("Tell me pretty daddy, what's the matter now, are you trying to quit me and you don't know how"). As Holiday is now acknowledged Jazz icon with countless followers and imitators, its fascinating to note that even she tipped her hat to this wonderful lady from Georgia who was her brave predecessor.


"Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift

O.K. back to classics.
With everything else that I read - and my interests are obviously unrepentantly omnivorous - some time ago I have decided that every month there should be a place for a time honoured classic, just so that I don't get completely buried alive in celebrity biographies or some frothy, lightweight guilty pleasure. The idea is very recommendable indeed, unfortunately yours truly had not really persevered with it, since:
a) I actually love the excitement of random choices, suggestions and spur-of-the-moment inspirations
b) Having a list of must-do usually provokes a resistance to it so it feels like an obligation
c) Because they were written centuries ago, classics demand far more concentration and effort than something written currently
Having this blog as reminder and looking back at the previous year, my reading list clearly shows only three classics read during twelve months, which is far from what I had in mind. The reasons are mentioned above but I also have to add that in all honesty, these old novels genuinely feel more like a task than like exciting experience - once I'm finished with them, I feel proud of myself for actually being disciplined enough to plow trough something so flowery and slow-moving like almost 300 years old novel but for all their highly esteemed and deserved historical status, they feel like a work contrary to my previous choice of "Shōgun" which kept me awake until early hours with the greatest pleasure and which left my head buzzing. Since classic-a-month comes off as a challenge, I wonder is it also because I need to read them with some continuity before it becomes a habitual joy instead of being - as it is presently - occasional chore that takes forever to finish, while modern popular novels just whizz by themselves so thrillingly? The amassed list of classics-to-read is already intimidating enough and perhaps too ambitious but before I completely give up on this idea (which I consider from time to time) and just accept that whatever I was forced to read in the school was enough, I will try to give it another go and hopefully by the force of habit - if I give it proper chance - my classic-of-the-month might get a foothold.

Yay, I have just finished it today. 
Some four decades ago I have read obviously only shortened version that usually gets served as children's literature, therefore I was familiar with only first and the most popular chapter (A Voyage to Lilliput) but actually there is so much more to "Gulliver's Travels" than diminutive Lilliputians. Much has been made about Jonathan Swift's literary attack on various forms of than-current authorities and what it all means, was he poking fun at the church or government, crown or parliament but in all honesty it don't really matter 300 years later - what we can clearly see is that he is turning reality completely topsy turvy and gleefully chuckling to himself created fantastic world where horses talk, ministers deserve their positions by dancing on the rope, petitioners are commanded to crawl on their bellies and lick the floor in front of the throne and such. 

The obvious explanation of Gulliver's timeless appeal is that the novel can be read, explained, poked, probed and analysed from many different perspectives. It can be enjoyed as a children's story - specially the first chapter with Gulliver saving the royal castle by pissing on it - or you can see it as a sharp satire and criticism of society that he lived in. You can see it also as a either clever variation on both Marco Polo and Robinson Crusoe or as a forerunner or later widely popular novels by Jules Verne. Myself, I am tempted to see it as Swift's own version of ancient tale of Sinbad the Sailor (Odysseus?) that only on a surface describes main hero's amazing adventures but actually talks about human character and ridiculousness of our principles. 

After Lilliput, Gulliver is shipwrecked time and time again (mirroring Robinson Crusoe which surely influenced him) first to the land of giants (Brobdingnag) where he becomes treasured entertainment for royal ladies ("The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant frolicsome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples, with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular"), than to the flying island Laputa where scientists spend their lifetimes studying the most ridiculous and pointless experiments and after many sideways & byways, he ends in the country of Houyhnhnms where horses are wise and humanoids (named Yahoos) are dangerous and ignorant. It is novel of almost ridiculously fantastic imagination, literary equivalent of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and deservedly considered a classic, however from time to time it shows his age much more than Robinson Crusoe because Swift too often feels compelled to moralise and compare various fantastic kingdoms to what he have left at home in England - but the heart of the novel is sharp, witty and so uniquely eccentric that it is no wonder that it survived for 300 years. 

"Then they measured my right thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical computation, that twice round the thumb is once round the wrist."


Real life Samurai

                       Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1867

"Shōgun" by James Clavell

During a casual conversation somebody recently have mentioned "Shōgun" and instantly I remember how much I always admired this novel and was planning to re-visit it again but always got distracted with something else. Once, long time ago, I clearly remember thinking about it and the very same day I found second hand copy on Amsterdam's famous flea market but for some reason never truly finished it, probably because it is a massive, more than a thousand pages long saga and at that time I was  too impatient for such effort. Now the right time came. And even the meeting with a person who mentioned it might not have been an accident because I truly believe things happen when they are supposed to happen, obviously I just needed a right moment for the idea to form in my thoughts - "yes, I should read that novel again, this time properly."

""In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai"
This was a sentence from Clavell's daughter schoolbook that inspired this novel. Clavell himself encountered Japanese and their life habits during WW2 when he barely survived as a prisoner of war in some of the most notoriously brutal Japanese concentration camps, the experience inadvertently serving as inspiration for several of massively successful historical novels of which "Shōgun" is by far the most beloved, in fact Clavell himself admits that it was the book made his name and he will forever be associated with. It is hands down, without a doubt the best historical fiction novel I have ever read and although it goes on for more than a thousand pages, I could gladly read another thousand, because it was so gripping, evocative and even informative about 17th century Japan. The only thing I remembered from reading it the first time around was the staggering shock that happened during first encounter of Japanese locals and European sailors, each side perceiving another as barbarians because their lifestyles, civilisations and the whole perspective of lives were so vastly different. Reading it now for the second time - as it usually happens, with completely different frame of mind - I become so engrossed in the story that for two weeks it became literary impossible to do anything else but to completely surrender to this dream inside of a dream (phrase from the novel) and even with supporting cast of hundreds, the novel was just perfection and masterpiece from the first to the last page. In fact, honestly I wouldn't mind if it had a few chapters more.

What makes "Shōgun" so special? First, its a escapism of the highest order. When the novel completely takes over and brings the reader safely out of ordinary life into another realm where typhoon whip the ships, where cruel Japanese lord orders European prisoner to be boiled alive simply for his amusement and where culture demands proper respectful bows or lack of it might be perceived as insult (and therefore resulting with a instant murder) and when you can't wait to go back to your reading chair and dive again into this fantastic world, than you know you have been enchanted. Nothing can be further from our lives and customs - it might as well be another planet - yet nothing could make you part with this book once you started. I got so engrossed in it that if anyone wanted to steal it from me, I would probably pull a sword and say "so sorry but you will die now". Second, its not "only" a fiction as most of us will found out that Clavell got his inspiration from real, historical people who actually lived, loved and died in that time - John Blackthorne existed and there is a statue of him in Nagisacho, Japan but the real name was William Adams. Wonderful, unforgettable Mariko Toda was a real-life Japanese samurai woman remembered as Hosokawa Gracia. Lord Toranaga and everything about him is true - even to the fact that he was famously enthusiastic about falconry and some of his real-life quotes are in the novel - except that his name was Tokugawa Ieyasu. Than there are literary hundreds of supporting characters who are all unique and important as chess figures in this huge war saga, even down to some samurai guard who happened to witness the treachery and several chapters later springs out of nowhere just to point at the traitor. As much as warriors themselves are brutal and dangerous, women are equally - or even more - lethal because they are fearless, cunning and shrewd. Take for example great royal widow Lady Ochiba or seemingly amusing Gyoko, the Mama-san who initiates the tradition of geisha girls but at the end of the novel we find out she might be one of the most dangerous characters. Third, the plot - oh what a plot - magnify Byzantine intrigues times ten and you get the world where basically guileless Blackthorne found himself as just another weapon in lord Toranaga's war - occasionally Blackthorne disappears in the background when Clavell excitedly spreads the whole banner over this multi-layered historical saga and suddenly we see much larger picture that looms over cities, mountains and the whole empire. The novel actually made me daydreaming about being Japanese and watching rocks grow. 


"Home" by Delaney & Bonnie (1969)

Fire and brimstone Southern couple completely soaked in gritty Rhythm & Blues but they also added their own Rock sensibility to mix, creating in process the particular, very appealing combination of two genres that will soon influence no less than Eric Clapton who will be so swept away with excitement that he will literary run away with the circus. Because its recorded in legendary Stax Studios right in the middle of Memphis, Tennessee, the album drips with sweat, rhythms and horns, while impeccable backing band (Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes, Leon Russell and William Bell amongst others) burns away behind husband & wife who seems completely possessed with music. If Delaney Bramlett comes off as natural, charismatic leader, his wife Bonnie holds her own with powerful, tough vocals and her fierce approach (heavily influenced by her black idols) is best presented on "Piece Of My Heart" - its closing track but also quintessential heart of the album, because it explains what Delaney & Bonnie are: white, Southern rockers who grew up with R&B and now they are giving it their own twist.

Its actually very easy to imagine any of the usual Stax black stars here instead of Delaney & Bonnie, because the music is absolutely irresistible, typical of famous Memphis Soul - even on something as infectious as "My Baby Specializes" one can close eyes and place Otis Redding or Carla Thomas instead, but where the original Judy Clay duet with William Bell was classic in its own field, these kids give it their own stamp and infuse it with languid sensuality - when that soul clappin' moment comes on and Delaney encourages the chorus to join in, its bootie shakin' moment of the highest order. That album didn't reap any chart smashing singles doesn't diminish its power or its beauty - it completely caught the late 1960s zeitgeist with its tribal energy and no matter are you fan of old school Soul or classic Rock or simply curious how they might sound if merged together, this is the place to start checking out this fantastic musicians who would, of course, from here just go to bigger things.