Thursday, July 31, 2014

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

One of the reasons I like being in a book club is that it forces me to read books I wouldn't necessarily choose on my own.  I did not vote for the July selection, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, because a biography about Robert Louis Stevenson sounded perfectly dull to me.  Of course, I couldn't put it down!  I was completely drawn into the fictionalized account of the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne.  I was fascinated by Fanny because she was so unconventional, especially for the time.  At age 35, she takes her three children to Belgium, where she hopes to become a painter, in order to escape from her unfaithful husband in San Francisco.  She eventually meets the much younger Stevenson in France and they begin a passionate affair. They live an extraordinary life wandering from Scotland, to Switzerland, and, finally, to Samoa searching for a climate conducive to Stevenson's tubercular lungs. Much of the novel deals with Fanny's total devotion to and care of Stevenson (often to the neglect of her children, her own health, and her own artistic ambitions) which enabled him to write Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Horan definitely makes the point that it is extremely difficult to be the woman behind a genius; although, Louis (as his is known to his friends and family) has such a magnetic personality that it is easy to see why Fanny loves him so much and, in the end, he gives her the life of art and adventure she was in search of when she left San Francisco. This novel is meticulously researched and Horan uses many of their letters and journals to bring the characters to life.  Her writing is rich and colorful and pulls you into the world of Fanny and Louis, describing wherever they happen to be with such verisimilitude. However, this is a long book. It seems as if Horan wanted to account for every moment the couple spent together so the pace really slows down towards the end of the book. There is an ever changing cast of characters surrounding the couple and they are not as fully developed as Fanny and Louis are.  I sometimes had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a compelling love story which I enjoyed very much and I highly recommend it.

Note:  The title of the book comes from a lovely poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called "Requiem."   I definitely want to read more of his work now.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


After a whole day on a bus and some drama at the border, I was tired, hungry, and traumatized (international travel is not for the faint of heart) by the time we made it to Russia.  I really just wanted to come home!  But after a good dinner, a good night's sleep, and a new tour guide (who was awesome) I was ready to go again.  St. Petersburg did not disappoint.
Our first visit was to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery which was founded by Peter the Great in 1710.
Holy Trinity Cathedral is located inside the monastery and it was magnificent.
Since we were at the monastery, I asked our guide if we could visit the Tikhvin Cemetery.  I have such a passion for Russian music and literature and many famous composers and authors are buried there.  He asked me who I wanted to see and I told him Dostoevsky, one of my favorite authors.  He was thrilled!  I said that The Brothers Karamazov was one of the greatest books ever written and he replied, "Yes of course.  But I really like Demons."  We had a great conversation about both books!  He took me to Dostoevsky's grave (L) and Tchaikovsky's (R)
Next we visited St. Isaac's Cathedral
Monument to Nicholas I
The Peter and Paul Fortress is where all of the Russian Czars, including Nicholas II and his family, are buried.
The inside is absolutely spectacular!  The chapel is where Nicholas II and his family are buried.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Palace Square.  I had chills standing here because this is where the Russian Revolution began.
The Alexander Column
The Winter Palace
Inside the Palace 
The Grand Ballroom!  As I walked through the Winter Palace I kept thinking about The Russian Ark, an amazing movie about Russian history, which was filmed there.  I wish that I could have attended a ball during the time of Catherine the Great!
My favorite room was the Throne Room.  So much history!
Inside the Hermitage Museum which contains over three million pieces of art.  It was almost overwhelming!
I really loved all the lapis lazuli vases that were in every room.
The next day we went to the Gulf of Finland to visit Peterhof, an amazing palace built by Peter the Great.  Here are some highlights.
The fountains are incredible and represent important events in the reign of Peter the Great.  My favorite is the fountain in the middle showing Samson killing a lion signifying Peter's defeat of Sweden (above, right).  I know everything there is to know about the Great Northern War with Sweden after reading Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert Massie (My guide was impressed that I had read it).  The fountains run completely on water pressure!
When we got back to St. Petersburg I asked our guide where the Bronze Horseman was located.  This statue, commissioned by Catherine the Great as a memorial to Peter the Great, was the inspiration for the epic poem by Pushkin (another favorite author).  He had the driver turn around to take me there to get a picture!  He told me I had to read the poem in Russian because the meter mimics the sound of the horse galloping.
That evening my guide was able to get me tickets to the ballet Swan Lake performed in the Winter Palace Theatre!  This is where Catherine the Great watched performances!  It was an absolutely incredible experience, both watching the dancers and listening to the music of Tchaikovsky.  I've always felt that Russian music sounds so much better when performed by Russian musicians because they are so passionate!  I've seen Swan Lake before but never performed so beautifully!  When Prince Siegfried battles Rothbert in Act 4 it was so intense that I was holding my breath!  It was a lovely way to spend my last night in the beautiful city of St. Petersburg!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


After a really long day traveling from Riga to Tallinn we had a little bit of free time to explore on our way to dinner.  Tallinn has more of its medieval fortifications intact than any other city in Europe and it is enchanting, like something out of a fairy tale!  The next morning we visited the Song Festival Grounds.
A Song Festival began in Estonia in 1869 when it was a part of the Russian empire as a way to keep folk traditions alive.  A festival has been held every five years ever since.  In 1988 people gathered at the Song Festival Grounds to sing forbidden patriotic hymns.  This became known as the Singing Revolution which eventually led to the overthrow of Soviet rule.  Many concerts are held here today; Madonna performed in 2009.
Then we took a walking tour of the Old Town.  Here are some of the highlights.
Toompea Castle is an ancient stronghold that has existed since the 9th century.  It has been controlled by Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Russia.  Today it houses the Estonian Parliament.
In the 18th century Catherine the Great had a Baroque palace added to the castle complex.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
St. Mary's Church (L) and St. Nicholas' Church (R)
Town Square.  We had a cheap thrill while standing in the middle of the square because a squadron of NATO F-16s flew overhead.  They were quite low and extremely loud.  Given the tensions in the area, I was a bit disconcerted.  Our guide told us that there were usually two NATO planes patrolling the airspace but that number has increased significantly since the Ukrainian crisis.
Gothic Town Hall building
Estonia was a part of the Hanseatic League, a guild of German, Scandinavian, and Baltic countries who joined together for trade during the Middle Ages.  There are many guild buildings throughout the Old Town.

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