Harriet the Bookaholic: November 2015

I’m a bit late posting this, I kept thinking I’d finish up one more book to add…but I didn’t. Between boxing up my whole life and moving it 700 miles south and then coming BACK north for the holidays and to finish up some stuff at my office…I just, well, I’m swamped. Blergh.


The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (4 stars). The world is limping along after a massive nuclear holocaust, pockets of humanity survive and depend on subjugating women with viable ovaries, impregnating them, and confiscating any babies who are not deformed or “shredders.” In hyper-conservative religious Gilead, Offred tells her story. I loved this.I was not terribly horrified by the premise that women were used for their ovaries and classified and ranked in society. I mean, civilizations around the world have done that for thousands of years. Take Henry VIII, he wanted a son so badly he kept killing his wives until one produced an heir. Marie Antoinette and Catherine The Great’s places as queen/empress were not assured until they produced an heir to the throne. I guess I expected to be horrified, and in many ways I was intrigued and sometimes disgusted, but it wasn’t ever truly shocking. Controlling women and their bodies has been part of our history forever, it only makes sense that in a post-apocalyptic world that would continue. Excellent read, so many things to think about.

Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by Sue Monk Kidd (3 stars). I have very mixed opinions about this book. Overall, I really didn’t like it. BUT, I also underlined and starred a number of passages. So, there’s that. I appreciate some of Monk Kidd’s revelations as she becomes a feminist-thinking woman, but I also was super frustrated by her process and actions. Written in 1992 some of those pieces are–at least for me and the women I associate with–just before my time and I have difficulty relating. But some of her opinions just came across as way extreme to me, and I consider myself a liberal-thinking feminist. Some great one-liners and small paragraphs, but overall, meh.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks.

Russian History & the Romanov Family

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). Catherine I–Catherine the Great–is seen as both a terrible tyrant and a benevolent empress. The truth is probably a little of both. This incredibly strong woman came to Russia as a young teenager, married the weak and indecisive heir to the Russian throne (Peter III), but still had to contend with the jealous and terrible Elizabeth, Russian Empress, for almost 2 decades before her husband became Tsar. At that point, Catherine decided to rule the country in her own right instead of leave the vast resources of the Russian empire to her completely inept husband. She ruled for decades, keeping hold of Russia through numerous wars and skirmishes with Prussia and the Turks, internal rebellion, and continued to expand the Russian empire while Great Britain lost the American colonies and the French monarchy and aristocracy were put to death via the guillotine. She introduced the smallpox vaccine, introduced religious tolerance, and nourished friendships and political alliances around Europe. She was such an incredible woman…and also an autocrat monarch of a vast empire she could only hope to vaguely understand. She maintained the status quo for the millions of peasants (um, it wasn’t a good status, btw), was unable to free the serf, although she did introduce serf reform that was quickly quashed by the land-owning noble-classes, and had little concept of how her autocratic rule was viewed in the provinces. Fascinating woman. Fascinating biography.

Additional Recommended Reading: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie; Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw; Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Amber Room, by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (2 stars). This is such a fascinating subject: a room made entirely of panels of amber from the Baltic sea, more precious than gold and much more fragile. This room was part of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg (yep, that Catherine), locations of millions of pieces of art collected for centuries. When the Nazi’s stormed the city during World War II the museum curators feverishly packed, stored, and hid as much art as they could…but the Amber Room proved too difficult to move and was left behind. The Nazi’s pried the amber panels from the walls and packed them off to a castle in Germany…and that is where the trail dies out. Did the panels arrive? Were they sent elsewhere? Did the Russians reclaim them and hide them again? Was the room destroyed by fire or carelessness? If you’re a White Collar fan, the contents of the Amber Room are a continuing theme and obsession for Neal Caffrey and take up the bulk of seasons one and two; the music box is from the Amber Room. So…fascinating subject, but the authors were SUUUUPER boring, and I like research-heavy books non-fiction books! Skip this, watch White Collar instead.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr.

Russian Literature

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol (4 stars). There is a lot to digest here, and if you aren’t paying close attention and at least nominally familiar with Russian aristocracy in the 1800’s you may get a little lost. Chichikov is a young man trying to make it big in a society where landowners with serfs are the only true way to wealth. The more serfs you have, the wealthier you are. Chichikov devises a plan where he collects serfs on paper–people who have died but are still considered alive by the state due to a once-a-decade census.  As Chichikov collects these dead souls through not-entirely-ethical means, his status rises and he is viewed more and more as a prominent member of society. And then, of course, his plan falls to pieces: all that glitters is not gold.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy (3 stars). This is a short book, Tolstoy explores the hurt, anxiety, frustration, and despair surrounding Ivan Ilych as he lays dying. There is some gorgeous imagery and tone, and you can’t help but want to hang out with Ivan Ilych (always called by his full name) and talk to him for the afternoon, hoping to give him a little hope and happiness.

Additional Recommended Reading: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

Civil War History

Ulysses S. Grant, by Owen Wister (3 stars). This is a pretty short biography of Grant, too short. I wanted a lot more detail on every part of his life. Thanks to Melanie‘s recommendation, have added a proper Grant biography to The List.

Additional Recommended Reading: Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara; Grant and Twain, by Mark Perry.

Harriet sig

Harriet the Bookaholic: July 2015

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.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande; The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; Strengths Finder, by Tom Rath.

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.)

Classic Literature

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!

Additional Recommended Reading: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain; A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.

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.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

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.

Additional Recommended Reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; The Proposal, by Anton Chekhov; Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov; Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Young Adult

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.

Additional Recommended Reading: Star Girl, by Jerry Spinelli; Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.

Harriet sig

Harriet the Bookaholic: May 2015

Book reviews from May: reading genres I’m currently obsessing about are the Iranian Revolution (1979) and it’s aftermath, and Russian literature. (Are those technically both a genre? Maybe not. But listing “Russian literature” as a topic seemed…weird. Iran is a topic and Russian lit is a genre?! I DON’T KNOW SO STOP TELLING ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE!)

Iranian Revolution

Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi (4 stars). Shirin Ebadi became the first woman judge in Iran in the late 1970’s, before the shah was deposed; after the Revolution and the militant Islamic state had control of the government and society she was demoted to a secretarial position. In the 1990’s she returned to the legal system as an attorney defending human rights cases against the government. In 2003 she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Iran. I loved this book, I feel like I got a great briefing of the history of Iran in the last 40 years and how the major players and political movements influenced that history; I also got to learn more about a truly fascinating fighter who spent her life dedicated to the people of her country. Fascinating read.

The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther (4 stars). Maryam left Iran after being disowned by her super conservative father right after the Iranian Revolution. Her story of growing up in the realm of the Shah and the home of a military tyrant (her Pops) is heartbreaking and horrible. She marries in England and raises a daughter to be independent and successful, but Maryam never truly leaves Iran and when a young nephew comes to stay, bringing all sorts of memories to the surface, Maryam returns to the village where she was born and now the family drama spans two continents and two cultures. I really wanted to give this 5 stars, there are gorgeous descriptions and vignettes, but the ending fell a little flat and cliche for me.

Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani (3 stars). There is some absolutely beautiful, poetic language in this book about the Iranian Cultural Revolution in the 1980’s and the 2010 uprising and election. The story follows several families, some of whom are related/cousins and others who are only tangentially acquainted; Delijani describes the parents/grand-parents experiences in 1983, many of whom served time or were executed in Evin Prison. She also details the lives of many of their children, some of whom have grown up outside of Iran (California, Italy, Germany), and others who are still living in Tehran and still rebelling against an oppressive militant-Islamic state. Sometimes it was hard for me to keep track of all the characters and the timeline, I wished I’d known more about the chronology of events of the Iranian Revolution prior to reading this book, it explains details and stories, but doesn’t have a cohesive backbone of events to help link them together. (I read Iran Awakening after Jacaranda Tree and I wish I had read it first.)

Additional Recommended Reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi; Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni.

Russian Literature

Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov (5 stars). I loved this book! I had no idea what it was going in and loved the fantastical and contemporary pieces that were woven together in this brilliant overlapping story. Master and Margarita was written in the 1930’s about Stalin’s rise to power in Russia in the same way The Wizard of Oz was written about the Silver vs Gold Standard battles in the United States during the 1890’s; however, unlike Oz, Bulgakov was unable to publish his book for fear of being killed (or worse) by Stalin’s regime and it was not published until 1967. Both are thinly veiled “fairy tales” with enormous political undertones, Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a fantastic satire on the worst parts of Soviet Russia and borrows liberally from Faustian plot and character mechanics. (Pretentiousness alert! I’ve never read Faust!) Master and Margarita stars Woland as the Devil/brilliant magician/Stalin, with a band of devilish misfits and witches—including a giant talking cat–who cause chaos and mischief throughout Moscow. Additionally, there is a second plot focused on an “alternative ending” type story about the crucifixion of Jesus, Pontius Pilate’s role in the whole thing, and the fate of Christianity. Yes, all those things in one book. With a number of trips to an insane asylum, any asylum will do. I will be thinking about this book for a long time! I had no idea Russian literature could be anything like this (because I have only ever really had The Classics recommended to me for reading, see below). A million thanks to julochka for sending this book rec my way!

The Sebastopol Sketches, by Leo Tolstoy (4 stars). This is one of Tolstoy’s first published works and he has cast himself as a war correspondent during the war with the French in the Crimea (1854-1855) and the siege of Sebastopol, a small city on the Black Sea. As a young man Tolstoy was ansty to fight in this “glorious war” and joined the army as an officer. His time in Sebastopol quickly taught him the horrors of battle and the deplorable conditions of the Russian infantry, which was a surprise for this aristocratic 22-year old from Moscow. Sebatsopol Sketches is comprised of three short stories taking place several months apart and following the lives and gruesome deaths and suffering of a handful of soldiers and officers. Eventually, Tolstoy would expand on these ideas of war and glory and bravery in the giant War and Peace, but the seeds of a brilliant writer are here in a much easier to digest volume.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (3 stars). Six weeks of audiobook is a long time for an audiobook, but at 63 hours I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this any quicker. Going in to “War and Peace” I knew very little about it’s plot or characters, I had heard repeatedly that it is one of the most important pieces of literature and that everything of any relevance to humans is within it’s pages. That all being said, any well-written book at 1,000+ pages will probably fit those two stipulations. What I did not realize is that Tolstoy spent years researching Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and invasion of Russia to write this book, he was frustrated in the way historians had handled the story and went back to primary documents including letters and correspondence between Russian and French generals. He recreated some of the largest battles and some of the smallest interactions between Russian nobility, peasants, and French soldiers. And wow, is he thorough. I got a little bogged down here and there with so much information, propaganda, chapters and chapters on a single day of battles, and so many characters. I probably won’t ever read this again, but I am glad I made it through and can check this behemoth classic off my list.

A Hero Of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov (3 stars). I believe I read this on recommendation of The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading and while I liked it well enough I don’t really consider it a must read. This story follows a Russian playboy-soldier-cad Pechorin in his adventures, as told from various points of view. Pechorin is often referred to (either by himself or by narrators) as “Byronic”, as in, “like Lord Byron” and I had to go look up what that meant. Basically, Pechorin is a flawed “hero” who isn’t actually heroic, but is kind of famous and handsome and uses his money, situation, and love interests to his temporary advantage. I think for it’s time this was a groundbreaking novel (published in the early 1800’s), but so many characters now are these kind of terrible humans who do terrible things to the people in their lives, yet are celebrated anyway.

Hmmm…maybe I don’t need to read any more 19th century Russian war novels…

Additional recommended reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. I should also probably list The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, but it was such a slog for me to finish up that I can’t in good faith tell anyone else to read it.

Harriet sig