Monday, July 22, 2013

My love for books, and my summer reading list, which includes The Little Paris Kitchen and a book on Russia

For the last 20 years or so, summer has always been July and August for me because I was living abroad and everyone around me lived and worked around this schedule.

We all took our holidays at this time, and Tokyo was basically a hot ghost town as everyone left for their summer homes somewhere in Japan or somewhere else in the world.

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I don't really live in Tokyo anymore, but observing July and August as summer is just a habit I've kept up because it's more convenient to synchronize trips, visits and holidays with certain friends this way.

Most of the people I'm close to are on the July-August summer mode.

And summer, to me, means catching up on reading -- finishing a lot of magazines and newspapers that have been piling up, and also reading a few books that have been on my "reading bucket list."

This summer, I've prepared quite a pile of books I'd like to read.

I don't really read fiction, so at the the top of my list are actually a cookbook and culture book.


The cookbok is called "The Little Paris Kitchen," which features 120 simple but classic French recipes that I plan to try out over the summer.

I love cooking when I have time, but that's not very often, even if I like entertaining and having friends over a lot when I'm home.

But I'll let you know how I do with these.


The other book is entitled "Moscow & St. Petersburg: Art, Life & Culture from 1900 - 1920."

It's a historical account of how life was in these two cities at one of the most crucial times in its modern history.

This covers the Imperial era under Czar Nicholas II prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, during the revolution itself, and immediately after the revolution.


In those 20 years, life as many Russians knew it virtually turned upside down, although not in a sudden fashion to catch people by surprise.

Many people at that time, including government officials and the aristocracy, could see the writing on the wall for years.

I believe what surprised them was the ferocity of the anger of the revolutionaries towards the entire Imperial system.

Many of the ruling power actually believed they could personally survive the upheaval and that things in Russia would largely remain the same, with just a change of czar.


Most Russian scholars today also agree that the Czar Nicholas II and his rather neurotic wife Alexandra basically signed the death warrant for themselves and the entire Imperial Family via a series of ill-judged decisions and just plain stubborness.

Czar Nicholas II was a most unprepared and inadequate ruler of Russia, although by most accounts he was a simple and kind family man.

His wife was just as unprepared to be empress -- or to be anything, for that matter, except for a simple housewife, which she was not.

It was a terrible combination, although they were personally very happy together.

There was also lots of bad luck on their side -- things not falling into place, which determined a fatal history.


I'm very interested in Russian history, and I've read almost every book and document I can find on this particular era. I've scoured lots of London's bookshops in search of rare books with first-hand accounts of this turbulent 20 years.

It's been a real joy to find such books over the years.

And most trips to London have resulted in heavy suitcases not filled with clothes or knick-knacks, but in rare books that are just impossible to find in Asia.


One of my prized finds includes an after-the-fact recollection by a lady-in-waiting of the last Empress Alexandra Feodorovna named Anna Vyrubova, who was living in a cottage on the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, which was the private residence of the last Imperial family.

Photo from
She was in many ways a dim-witted woman who encouraged the friendship between the Empress and the notorious Rasputin. But she was probably the closest non-royal to the immediate Imperial family at a time when it had cut itself off from society and even from kin.

I knew about the existence of this book, written in Denmark after she had escaped Russia, but I never thought I'd hold a copy with my own hands as it was printed privately in a very limited edition almost 80 or so years ago.

But one day I found just one copy in the rare Russian books section of a bookshop in London. My hands were shaking as I held this book in my hands.


My other great find is -- would you believe -- a series of obscure books printed from the diaries of the French Ambassador to the Russian court at that time, Maurice Paleologue.

Ambassador Paleologue was a very observant and conscientious recorder of Russian events at that time. He also took the time to network with anyone and everyone who was someone in the Russian court and Russian government.

It was fascinating to read a first-hand account from an intelligent and well-connected third-party observer.


I was sufficiently impressed with Ambassador Paleologue's account of a dying Imperial Russia at the turn of last century, that I even visited his grave in the cemetery of Passy on a visit to Paris one day, a long time ago, to put some flowers on his grave.

It took great effort to find his grave, as he is not exactly famous except among scholars of Russian history.

Just a few meters from Ambassador Paleologue's grave in Passy, as well, is the very simple tombstone of Russia's ultimate femme fatale, an upper middle class woman named Nathalie who caught the eye of Czar Nicholas II's brother, Grand Duke Michael.

She became the love of his life and the talk of aristocratic Europe. Yet she died penniless and homeless in a charity ward of a local hospital in Paris, after being cast out in her dying days by Russian emigres who had taken her in.


Her son, who died prematurely in a car crash, is buried with her here. The inscription on the simple black tombstone says only in French: "The wife and son of the Grand Duke Michael of Russia."

In marrying the bright and beautiful Natasha, Michael -- considered second in line to the Russian throne because of the incurable illness of the real heir, the Prince Alexei -- left a string of broken hearts all over Europe.

But he loved Natasha enough to fight for her and arrange an unofficial marriage with her. They were very happy in spite of all the obstacles, until World War I broke out and thus began the disintegration of Imperial Russia.


I knew all about her love story when she was once the most infamous woman in Europe, and the tragedy that slowly befell her after she managed to escape Russia with her son. She had managed to bring with her a few jewels, and this is what she survived on.

But it was never enough for a lifetime.

Meanwhile Grand Duke Michael was callously murdered somewhere in the Russian Urals.


The Danish-born Empress Marie Feodorovna

Out of all the women in Russian history, I reserve the greatest admiration for Catherine the Great and the Danish-born but very politically astute Empress Maria Fedorovna, mother of Czar Nicholes II.

Nathalie Sergeyevna was very ordinary in comparison, but her story made me cry.

I made sure to lay flowers at her grave as well, just a few meters from Ambassador Paleologue, who once admired so much her beauty -- that beauty that had captured the most eligible batchelor of Russia.

He had seen her once in a bookshop in St. Petersburg, he wrote in his diary, and immediately she had caught his attention because of her elegance and beauty.


In a fit of Russian fervor, I even once dragged three friends who had traveled with me to Paris five years ago to see the colorful but rather forlorn-looking Russian church in the Rue Daru.

This is where so many Russians wept a litany of sorrows after the Russian revolution changed their lives forever and they had to find ways to survive in Paris.

They were lucky to have escaped alive, but they were not so lucky to have survived and instead experience a slow and humiliating death.

I swear I could feel their tears as I lighted a candle for them.

I could go on and on with these stories, as they represent the glory and the downfall of a family and a way of life of a dynasty that once ruled almost half the world.

I hope I didn't bore you with this long narrative about a topic in history that I'm so passionate about, even now in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


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