The best history books

Traveling the world through books

Frequent Flier Christine Cunanan Travelife Magazine Publisher
Traveling the world through are some recommendations for those who wish to visit other worlds and other times…

Someone recently wrote asking me what kind of books I read, and so I decided to share with you some favorite books. However, in a way, reading books is a form of travel because books take you to places and periods away from home and the present. In fact, books are perhaps the most affordable form of (mental) travel, accessible to anyone with the time and inclination.


I was in Dubai in July, and while there, I took the opportunity to visit Dubai’s largest bookstore and pick up a couple of autobiographies and memoirs that are hard to find in our part of the world. These are what I’ve been reading in the past months.

I began with Married to a Bedouin, a fascinating account of a young New Zealand woman who met a Bedouin while traveling through Petra and promptly fell in love and got married. The resulting tale is one of unbelievable challenges but undeniable happiness. The account of the life of the Bedouins was also very interesting for me.

Then I went on to read Mother Without a Mask, another very interesting tale of an American-born Londoner who becomes like a second mother to the younger sons of a Sheikh from Abu Dhabi, and in the process she gets a rare and unedited view of the culture and lifestyle of a privileged family of the Middle East.

I’ve written about this phenomenon in this blog; but one of the things that struck me during my visit to Dubai was just how few foreigners actually had real and in-depth contact with the locals. One expatriate woman I had lunch with held a high-powered job and had been living in Dubai for 12 years; and yet she’d never seen the inside of a home of a local family. So it was especially interesting to read this insider’s account of how a local family — albeit a very privileged one — actually lived.


I’ve finished this book, and now I’m just starting My Feudal Lord, the autobiographical story of Tehmina Durrani, an educated and aristocratic Pakistani woman who left her husband and child to become the sixth wife of Mustafa Khar, an enigmatic and powerful politician.

The tale is absolutely riveting as it not only gives insights into the way of life and thinking of the educated Pakistani families, but because the story itself is almost unbelievable. It’s taken lots of self-control for me not to continue reading this book into the night as I wouldn’t put it down, if I had my way. But I’ve been disciplining myself to read a chapter every few days so that I still have time for the rest of my life. And for this blog, of course.


Although there are some great fiction books on the market, I almost never read fiction, save for classics of the ancient and contemporary kind. My all-time favorite novel is The Tale of Genji, a lengthy 11th century novel on life in the intrigue-filled Heian-era courts of Kyoto. It’s written by a court lady who wrote under the pen name Murasaki Shikibu. There are several translations on the market. I’ve read most of them and prefer the translations of Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene.


Among contemporary novels, I favor the works of Japanese writers like Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, who are masters of subtlety and yet excellent observers of human nature. Tanizaki’s Makioka Sisters is a novel about four genteel but impoverished sisters in Kansai worrying about money, saving face and marriage; and Mishima’s Spring Snow is the first book in his three-part masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility, which describes the life of an aristocratic courtier family in Tokyo with a wayward son.


I’ve also just finished Yukio Mishima’s After The Banquet, which is a re-read which I managed to do in between my Middle Eastern books. I first read After The Banquet over 20 years ago, and this (and Spring Snow) is how I got hooked on Japanese literature.

Re-reading After The Banquet again with more maturity, I really appreciated the genius and masterful style of Mishima and also the subtle nuances he so poignantly weaves into his story of a very capable mistress of a famous traditional restaurant who meets, falls in love, marries and then divorces a retired politician living on memories and inflexible philosophies.

These books, and a handful of others written in the early 20th century, were responsible for making me a lifelong fan of Japanese literature.


Among living novelists, the only one I have read thoroughly is the Colombian Nobel prizewinner Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Many years ago, I read his famous One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that could kill a person with its heavy weight (it would also certainly kill my rather strict Ateneo English 101 teacher with its lengthy sentences…), and was hooked.

His flowery prose goes completely against my Strunk & White training, but I allow myself to be enchanted by his descriptions of a most amazing world of love, courage, intrigue and desperation. I’ve read his other books since then, but One Hundred Years of Solitude is still my favorite.


My biggest passion, however, is reading biographies. I scour bookstores all over the world for rare ones, especially when in London, where I am probably at Hatchards every other day. In this bookstore with fairly ancient beginnings (1797!), a few blocks from St. James Palace, I’ve found some very rare books — the kind written for very small audiences and with an even smaller print run.

One of my precious finds here, for example, include a diary of a lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra of Russia, the last Empress, that chronicled their secluded life in the Alexander Palace just before the Russian Revolution of 1917. I’d read that such a diary was in existence, and you can imagine how happy I was to find it as a privately printed book at Hatchards — not the kind you can easily pick up at


Anyway, my library in my weekend house at the foothills of Mount Fuji in Japan is filled wall-to-wall with biographies and also such books that a nephew was once prompted to ask why I loved reading about dead people so much.

Biographies are great studies in human nature and in the common motivations and passions that transcend time, place and situation. It is uncanny how the fears and insecurities of a queen in 16th century Europe, for example, are so similar to those of a senior executive in a Japanese firm in present-day Tokyo.

After reading so many biographies, one realizes how similar we really all are. Stories about strong women particularly fascinate me, especially when these women have been able to combine the advantages of femininity with strengths equal to men. Such combinations may not be very unusual today, but until 50 years ago, such women were still short of amazing.


Over the years, I have been heavily engrossed in the biographies of female historical figures in Europe, reveling in the following excellent accounts of the lives of the queens of Europe: Marie Antoinette of France by Antonia Fraser, Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Brigitte Hamann and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir, among others. By the way, after reading so much history, I’ve now realized that many a downfall of an empire was prompted by a woman.


This was the case with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a beautiful woman who led the most purpose-less life imaginable at a time when Austria would have benefited from an intelligent and capable empress and mother; and Empress Alexandra of Russia, a kind-hearted but neurotic woman who did not have the political instincts that could have helped her husband and saved their lives.


In contrast, her mother-in-law, the Empress Marie Feodorovna, was an amazing woman who overcame a so-so education and rather limited physical advantages to truly become an asset to her husband in his short reign. The little-known Danish-born Empress Marie, made larger than life only by portrayals of her as the bitter grandmother living on her memories in all these Anastasia movies, was actually a most admirable queen. She deserves a separate blog entry next year.


However, my favorite book has been Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (by Jane Dunn, published by Harper Perennial in 2004), a historical comparison of Elizabeth I of England and of Mary Queen of Scots, two fascinating women leaders who were bound by blood and rivalry. I picked this up at Hatchards last spring on the strength of its appearance in The Sunday Times bestseller list and was happily rewarded.

Jane Dunn combines good writing with meticulous research and an eye for interesting details. I spent the entire flight back to Tokyo marvelling over how one woman was born in a golden cradle and yet she died a queen without a kingdom or wealth (Mary), while another was disinherited as an infant and imprisoned as a young woman, yet she ended up Europe’s most revered queen (Elizabeth).

However, to enjoy this book fully, if possible I recommend reading beforehand the respective biographies of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to get to know each of them first as persons. This way, it will be like knowing two warring cousins very well and then finding out the real story behind the feud. As far as I’m concerned, the two best biographies on the market are Mary Queen of Scots (by Antonia Fraser, published by Delta Trade Paperbacks) and The Life of Elizabeth I (by Alison Weir, published by Ballantine Books).


Now, you may ask, why spend so much time reading about these two women? First, if you love a good story complete with love, tragedy, and betrayal, none of these will disappoint. Second, their lives, choices and rivalry made a significant impact on Western history and culture.

The Elizabethan Age is widely acknowledged as England’s Golden Era and this is due largely to the wisdom and foresight of Elizabeth I, a woman of steel who was also full of complex weaknesses, many of them related to Mary Queen of Scots‘ strong claim on the English throne.

Meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots was a Catholic queen of a largely Protestant Scotland, who was born with so much good fortune but who suffered from bad luck and bad decisions. If she had made different choices and had actually lived to rule her country, who knows what would have happened? Perhaps Scotland would have reverted to Catholicism, or perhaps it would be more aligned with Spain or France than with England even today.


I also read the biography of Madame de Pompadour, long-time mistress of Louis XV, and a beautiful, intelligent and politically astute woman who fascinates me no end. I’ve read probably every biography on her, but this most recently acquired one, written by the notorious but talented Nancy Mitford in the first half of the 20th century, has been the most entertaining.

The book flows like a novel, and yet without relinquishing any of the strictness required of historians and biographies (although some purists claim she took liberties with the facts).


Madame de Pompadour was a woman advanced for her time. Although not nobly born, she was better educated than most, and she smartly used what skills she had to navigate and conquer the French court.

My interest in Madame de Pompadour took me to Versailles, France, to see the palace she ruled, the little theater she acted in and the manor house she created for herself and Louis XV.

Then by accident, while having lunch one day at the Tour D’Argent in Paris, I just happened to glance at an ornate little carriage to the right of the restaurant elevator. It turned out to be Madame de Pompadour’s palanquin!

Meanwhile, in England, while staying at the country house-hotel Cliveden, I happily chanced upon a beautiful gilded room on the ground floor that was just being outfitted for some very wealthy French lady’s bridal shower. I learned that this had originally been Madame de Pompadour’s room, meticulously taken down piece by piece and transported to England and reassembled in Cliveden by Lord Astor, who owned Cliveden at the time.


I also happily finished an excellent biography of Potemkin, lover and co-ruler of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin by the respected British writer and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is such a good read that I almost dreaded finishing it and having Potemkin’s tale out of my life.

This book was recommended to me by a good friend in London sometime back, as she and I share a love of history and she is very aware of my passion for Russian history in particular. In addition, her cousin (who happens to be a good friend of Prince Charles) had written it, and she vouched for the meticulousness of the research.


He reportedly spent weeks and weeks pouring over dusty documents in the Kremlin that no one had ever seen before, and traveled all over the former Russian republics in search of Potemkin relics in the most unusual places.

However I only found time to pick it up at the bookstore recently (yes, it’s available in Manila — and I’m so glad I didn’t pay double or triple abroad for this book). The moment I started page 1, I was enthralled by the wonderful writing and meticulous research that together produced a vivid portrait of a great man and a great woman, and their partnership, in tumultuous 18th century Russia.

These wonderful books and such musings certainly kept me entertained on many long airplane flights traipsing through continents and on rainy weekend afternoons at home over the past years.