Over the last few weeks I have continued my obsession with Russian Literature and the history of the Romanov family. I still have a fat biography of Catherine the Great that I need to tackle, but after that I think I’ll have exhausted my current stash of books about Mother Russia. For a little while, at least. I also got a bit on a classic literature kick and had a serious jonesing for the legend/history of Pope Joan, a brilliant woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest rank in the Catholic Church.
Non-Fiction / Personal Development
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam (3 stars). I both really loved and appreciated and really rolled my eyes a lot at this book. Vanderkam has pages of fantastic suggestions for better time management, better prioritization, and better efficiency at work. She is less helpful (in my opinion) for improvement at home. It seems her solutions for work-related time issues are solid and thought out and take into account possible cramps like office style, manager style, and industry. However, he solutions for better efficiency at home seem to all skew toward “just outsource it.” If this book was confined only to work-related efficiency I would have given it 5 stars. If it was confined only to home-related efficiency I would have given it 1 star. So, there’s that.
The Legend of Pope Joan
Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross (4 stars). There was so much of this book that I love, love, loved. The basic premise is that during the 9th century young Joan, who loved to study and learn, eventually landed herself in a Schola where she was taught Latin and relished in reason (vs the more conventional study of uber-Catholic texts). Eventually she disguised herself as a man named John, joined a monastery, made her way to Rome and eventually rose to the office of Pope within the Holy Roman Empire (Pope John VIII). I loved the mystery and the fragmented pieces of stories that make up this half-myth / half-history. I loved the details that the author filled in out about life and the status of women in the Dark Ages of Europe. Minus one big, fat star for the gratingly irritating “love story” that the author felt just must be included. Blergh. WHY MUST THERE ALWAYS BE A LOVE STORY WHEN A BRILLIANT WOMAN IS CONCERNED!!? CAN’T SHE JUST STAND ON HER OWN!? Ahem.
Pope Joan: A Historical Study (1886), by Emmanuel Rhoides, translated by Charles Hastings Collette (4 stars). This translation of Rhoides research from the 1800’s on the authenticity of Pope Joan/Pope John VIII was full of documentation both for and against the actuality of Joan having existed. Many historians and scholars in the Catholic hierarchy claim Joan was invented by the Protestants to discredit the Throne of St. Peter. Rhoides argues that there are enough independent accounts of her that have been uncontested by the Catholic church to prove that she existed. Now, the details surrounding her life, her papacy, and her death have all sorts of inconsistencies, but in my opinion, and in Rhoides’, she absolutely existed and was elected Pope. Fascinating little book.
The She-Pope: A quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan, by Peter Stanford (5 stars) Stanford takes a much more scholarly approach than the novel “Pope Joan” by Donna Woolfolk Cross, and I appreciate the more journalistic searching/interviewing than was present in Emmanuel Rhoides book. Stanford explores ancient libraries and talks to Catholic historians and priests in the Vatican. He searches for documents and stories and plays in German and French and Latin that mention a female Pope and compares the similarities and differences to the Pope Joan story. He makes an argument for Joan as a truth and also for her story as legend (created (or not?) by Protestant Reformers trying to discredit the Catholic Church). I loved his cross-referencing of historical documents from around Europe and I also loved that in his writing he also inserted some of his own personal search, as a Catholic journalist and religious writer his grappling with facts and myth and legend was interesting and did not take away from the story. Excellent read.
Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain. (Not the same Joan; different Joan.)
Daisy Miller, by Henry James (4 stars). My first Henry James and I love his writing style, voice, and descriptions. Miss Daisy is a feisty young girl vacationing with her family in Europe and completely indifferent to the customs and social mores that should surround a young woman her age and in her position. I like her independence and her character, I’m less enthused by the narrator, another American man who has fallen for Daisy but whom she emotionally tortures and then ignores.
The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (5 stars). Oh my goodness, this book is a new favorite!! James has nailed psychological profiling for characters in ways that I doubt anyone else of his time has been able to do successfully. The intrigue and sense of propriety that surrounds the decisions of his major and minor roles is wonderfully executed. I love the introspection he gives his characters after a major scene or interaction. I LOVE Isabel and identify with her so much. In many ways she reminds me of Jo March with a little bit of Amy mixed in. She is perfection. Read this! I know you’ll love it!
To A God Unknown, by John Steinbeck (4 stars). One of his earliest novels, this story is populated by the mystic, mythic, larger-than-life characters and events. There are pagan beliefs and Catholic vs Protestant struggles and, overall, a deep emotional and physical tie to the land. Joseph Wayne moves to California to homestead and is joined by his brothers, a wife, and a child. Joseph’s ties to his property and the protection of his crops and animals is fierce and reflects a lot of Native American sensibilities (rocks and trees and rain as humanistic, with needs and desires and avenging actions). Steinbeck’s writing is not as sweeping as in East of Eden (an obvious expanded theme of To A God Unknown), but his weaving of biblical imagery and earth worshiping was just wonderful. Recommended.
Russian Literature & History
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). What happened to the Romanovs after they were shot, firing squad style, in 1918? The short story is that their bodies were covered in acid, burned, and tossed into an unmarked mass grave and left. In the 1970’s a small handful of individuals took it upon themselves to try and locate the final resting place of the last Tsar of Russia, and by piecing together tiny fragments of information over 50 years old, and spending a LOT of time in the forests around Ekaterinburg, they finally found 9 of the 11 Romanov skeletons. (Spoiler, several years after this book was published the other 2 were located, which included the Tsarevich Alexie.) Massie details the murder, the cover up, the exhumation, and the ensuing political and legal battle(s) over what to do with the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family.
Additional Recommended Reading: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie; The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport; The Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally.
Chekhov’s Major Plays: Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov (4 stars). I have seen bits and pieces of The Seagull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, but this was the first time I read them all. Written during Imperial Russia’s decline there is a sense of a fading aristocracy learning to deal with reality (losing estates, running out of money), family decline, and the rise of modern society. I think Ivanov was my favorite of the five, certainly the most humorous.
The Duel, by Anton Chekhov (3 stars). The basic premise is that Ivan and his mistress are living together in sin and a busy-body is so offended by this fact that he challenges Ivan to a duel that no one else really wants to see happen and is foiled at the last minute by a priest crashing out of the bushes. A few good lines, but not super intriguing.
Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov (3 stars). Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I was so excited to follow up some serious reading of Russian literature with this collection of his lectures and writings about various authors and books. The gist is that Anna Karenina is Nabokov’s favorite and he spends more than half of this book discussing it’s plot, characters, and Tolstoy’s writing style and philosophical platform(s). I really wish I’d read this when A. K. was fresher in my mind. Nabokov hates Dostoyevsky and finds him hardly passable as an author (I personally disagree) and appreciates Chekhov. The other Russian writers (Gogol, Turgenev, Gorki) I am unfamiliar with, but I still loved reading Nabokov’s direct, academic, often sarcastic, and sometimes hilarious reviews of their writing.
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (4 stars). Not sure why I never read this before (or saw the movie, I know, I live under a rock or something), but I loved the heroine and her thought processes, I loved the idea that being brave isn’t being unafraid, it is being scared to death and doing the right thing anyway. Such a wonderful book and message. Everyone read this! Recommended by Jactionary.