circa 1987

So, I have to admit to really, really liking 1987 Michael Ignatieff.

When I first started reading The Russian Album, a friend asked if it made me like the federal Liberal leader more, and I said no, not particularly. Really, early on in the book, I had little more than passing admiration for the way the author managed to distance himself from his own family history. Here he was, telling tales of princesses and counts and nation-building and rank-climbing with an eye to the details of history. That didn't make it any less entertaining, or any less challenging, to read. But it carried a whiff of academia in its first pages, as Ignatieff wrote about what the family photograph could mean.

Borrowing from an 1877 article in Macmillan's Magazine, he quotes: "... the sixpenny photograph is doing more for the poor than all the philanthropists in the world..." Further, he argues, "In democratizing the privilege of a family portrait gallery, the sixpenny photograph deserves a place in the social history of modern individualism." (p. 3)

Moving further along, however, the book captures the emotions of adventure, bravery and family history. As Ignatieff gets closer to his own roots in Canada -- through his father's ascent in Nicholas II's court, the passing details of family jealousies and betrayals, through the family's escape from Communism -- The Russian Album becomes a definitively engrossing read.

Perhaps, when one gets to the concluding chapter, and follows Ignatieff's own travels to revisit the past with his elderly uncles, one might find tears in one's eyes.

If one were to have tear ducts, of course.

"I have learned that you can inherit loyalties, indignation, a temperament, the line of your cheekbones," Ignatieff writes, "but you cannot inherit yourself." (p. 220)

The writing, in all, is just gorgeous. I can't help but envy Ignatieff's pre-politics career. His 2009 True Patriot Love is supposed to be a companion to The Russian Album, in that it follows his mother's Canadian roots. In a brief forward, Ignatieff says he began writing the book before he became a politician. Pardon my raised eyebrows on this count.

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