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.

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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.

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Harriet the Bookaholic: June 2015

In the last few weeks I’ve become slightly obsessed with the Romanov family, the last reigning monarchs in Russia. This has dovetailed into my love for Russian literature and–strangely–has given me some additional insight into psychology and neurology. See, Rasputin, the self-proclaimed holy man who seemed to help the young, hemophiliac Alexey, heir to the Russian throne, used all sorts of mind tricks on the Tsar and his family to maintain his position. The Tsarista, Alexandra, also had an arsenal of neurological issues/weapons that she employed with her children, her husband, and the Russian people. Honestly, I was so fascinated by how these seemingly unrelated topics informed and explained each other in so many ways. Go Team Nerd!


The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (4 stars). I really enjoyed this book, it is a brief skip through the mental health industry touching on a number of different components but without exploring in depth anything in particular. As an newly minted armchair psychiatrist/psychopath spotter Ronson blunders through identifying and interviewing mental health professionals, Scientologists who believe psychiatry is a total sham, criminals and professors and verified psychopaths. Entertaining and a pretty quick read–surprising for such a heavy topic–this is a good lighthearted overview of some mental health issues and the societal conditions surrounding them.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey;  Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan.

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet (3 stars). While I appreciated and was fascinated by the book, I’m not sure if I would say I “loved” it. It can be jarring to read, but I also think that is part of what makes it so interesting, the writing is a slightly edited version of Tammet’s thinking with some tangents and explanations and facts that seem a little off, but truly help us understand how his mind works. And that, I think, is the point. Very interesting read.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon; Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer; The Tell-Tale Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran (but ONLY the first half of this one! The last half is crap.)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks (3 stars). I’m spoiled by Atul Gawande’s medical writing. I appreciate the case studies from some early neuro-psychology diagnosis and treatments, but I wasn’t drawn in to Sacks’ writing like I am to Gawande’s. Or to House.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, by Sigmund Freud (2 stars). Meh. Freud has a large body of research and I know he’s the father of blah blah blah, but for me it was too narrow and too anecdotal. Is Freud’s research useless? No, I found his chapters on free word association quite fascinating. But, overall, I see it as a very small starting point to explaining the much larger and more layered sciences of psychology and neurology. I also reject the idea that anything we forget–names, dates, places, faces, ideas–is a product of repression. I don’t think that every slip of language or memory is somehow due to our souls/brains being corrupted and destroyed by sex or violence or shame. I think sometimes our brains prioritize the things they view as most important, and making a mistake like forgetting the name of that restaurant you had dinner at that one time in that one place does not necessarily mean you have some kind of unrequited latent sexual need for that person/thing that is only associated with that restaurant in the vaguest and loosest possible terms.

Additional Recommended Reading: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink; Complications, by Atul Gawande; Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman; Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Romanov Family

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Romanov dynasty (or the reign of the Russian Tsars in general) before picking this book up, you know, except for that Anastasia movie with Meg Ryan’s voice (full of inaccuracies, btw! There’s a surprise!). Massie gives a detailed and thorough history of the Romanov family, which ended with Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, his wife, the German princess Alexandra, and their children. Additionally, he details the horror and tragedy of young Tsarevich Alexie’s hemophilia and the toll it took on their family, the disease was kept completely secret from the Russian people and the vast majority of the people at the Tsar’s inner court. Having a feeble heir to the Russian empire was seen as weak, and heaven forbid a Romanov be seen as weak (or, you know, that one of the four healthy daughters be named as heir to the throne. Ahem.). As Russia entered World War I–fascinating, by the way, how that all came about–Nicholas and Alexandra become more and more enamored with Rasputin, the peasant mystic who seemed to be able to bring healing and relief to her sickly son. These two things, Alexie’s hemophilia and Rasputin’s mystical healing powers, are ultimately, Massie argues, what brought down the Russian empire. (I think a healthy chunk of the problem was going into the 20th century the Russian empire had a complete lack of any democracy for millions and millions of starving, freezing peasants while the ruling minority grew wealthier and wealthier, but whatever.) Nicholas was busy on the war front and Alexandra was overseeing things at the capitol, St. Petersburg, despite zero real training in running a government, let alone managing a vast empire at war. Both were absolutely out of touch with the urban civilians and peasant poor and their need for more autonomy in their governments and ruling bodies and some basic human rights and guarantees. Nicholas was easily swayed by Alexandra’s opinion in politics and who was hired and fired in positions of power, and Alexandra was completely devoted to and controlled by Rasputin because he brought relief to the young Alexie. (Alexandra’s recommendations for government positions seemed to rest solely on whether or not that person believed in Rasputin.) And Rasputin was dead set on controlling the country’s affairs. So: Hemophiliac Heir + Rasputin + Civilian Unrest/War = Fall of the House of Romanov = Rise of Bolsheviks/Lenin –> Stalin/Communism = Cold War. Fascinating stuff (although, perhaps a bit incomplete in the details).

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport (3 stars).  Rappaport focuses her book on the 3 months the Romanov family spent under house arrest in Ekaterinburg and the details of their execution and burial. While she does explain some of the larger political movements and background of the major players, she mostly concentrates on the personal lives of the Romanov’s, their few remaining servants, and the guards and soldiers who surrounded them. Unlike author Massie (see review above), she has a wider view of the fall of the House of Romanov which includes centuries of brutal autocratic rule, a weak Tsar Nicholas II, starving masses, and Russia’s disastrous entrance into World War I followed by a simultaneous civil war between Bolsheviks and monarchists.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (3 stars). This is written for a young adult / middle-grade audience, in my (non-expert) opinion, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. Overall, I think it was a pretty decent coverage of the events leading to the fall of Imperial Russia and the murder of the Romanov family. However, there was a lot of the more horrific details, rumors, and deception that was left out completely, most likely due to the younger target audience. Which is fine, I suppose, but when you are talking about a 300-year dynasty crumbling, an empire in ruin, and a royal family being murdered…there’s a lot of gruesome and kind of essential details for it to truly make sense.

Russian Literature

The Proposal, by Anton Chekhov (5 stars). This is a short story / one-act play and is absolutely hilarious: a hypochondriac suitor, his flustered future father-in-law, and the woman to whom he is trying to propose marriage. Go on, go read it. It may take you 15 minutes. I’ll wait. [This is you following my directions in exactness…] [15 minutes later] See? SO GOOD! You’re welcome.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (4 stars). Ah, Raskolnikov, why you gotta be like that? (Calculating murderer, thief, liar, benefactor to widows, students, and children.) While Raskolnikov’s reasons for ax-murdering two women are pretty twisted (he sees himself as one of The Greats, like Napoleon, and therefore his actions will bring about a better social good and will not be punishable), his mental state afterward shows some pretty interesting behaviors and I’d love a more educated analysis and diagnosis. Excellent read, beautiful language, lots of moral meat and philosophical contemplation. Recommended.

Additional recommended reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (this play was also made into a brilliant movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep).


Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, by Nancy Pearl (4 stars). This isn’t so much a novel or narrative as it is a reference book to flip through again and again. Nancy Pearl (librarian extraordinaire) has made a book of book recommendations based on your travel plans, or your hopeful travel plans, or your armchair travel plans. She covers dozens of countries, cities, or regions and includes history, non-fiction, and fiction books that discuss that place. The only real problem, of course, is that while published in 2010 this already is missing so many great location-centric books! I wrote a bunch of my own recs in the margins and went through the index circling books to add to my To Read mountain. I do wish that there had been a bit more about the books than just a title and (sometimes) author, two sentences would have been really helpful on all books, not just a select few from any given geographic area.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner.


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Harriet the Bookaholic: March 2015

I really love these monthly book posts, I love keeping tabs on my own reading habits and writing a little paragraph about each book I finish. I have really enjoyed coming up with recommendations of similar or complimentary books for each of these titles/subjects and combing through past literary experiences. I am also the type of person who loved getting stickers on her chart and checking off all the boxes in a to-do list. Shocker, I know.


I feel it important to mention here that in March I took myself on two road trips, one about 1500 miles round trip, the other about 700 miles, and during those drives I listened to audio books, specifically, to Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick, both hundreds and hundreds of pages on their own (and hours and hours of listening), but with over 40 hours of drive time, it was totally manageable to get through both those behemoth classics as well as a half-dozen other books.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (5 stars). What a tremendous story! I knew the basic plot of this sweeping novel, but I had no idea how expansive and involved the characters are, their relationships, their duties, their sense (or lack of) moral judgements and behavior. I love how Tolstoy uses various points of view to tell the story–one of my favorites was a brief chapter told from the perspective of Konstantin Levin’s hunting dog–and I love how full these characters are painted. While Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronsky all fell fairly flat for me, uninteresting, and perhaps a little more one-dimensional as they were three cast as “villains” or “un-Christian”, I really loved the relationship between Konstantin Levin and Kitty; I love Konstantin the most, I think, as Tolstoy intended. I realize that as Tolstoy’s hero Kostya receives more positive attributes overall and a more sympathetic story arc, but I still loved him, even in his stumbles and faults as he makes his way as an agricultural baron, husband, and father. I know many people stumble with all the Russian names, but I really loved them and how specific people refer to others by specific nicknames or not, depending on their relationships. This reminded me of some the the great, sweeping epic pieces of literature with dozens of characters and stories and side-stories and rambling plots that overlay each other again and again.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck; Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

Moby-Dick; or the Whale, by Herman Melville (5 stars). I went into this book with very little expectation, and I absolutely loved it. I loved Ishmael, I loved his perspective and voice and I love how Melville gave him these hilarious sarcastic moments. I actually laughed out loud on several occasions. Yes, this is a book about a whale, not necessarily about catching said whale, or even chasing said whale, although there are parts of that, for sure. But really, this is a giant, 700-page manifesto on a white spermaceti whale, and other whales, and other giant fishes, and the history and biology of all of those. I loved it. Spoiler: if you’re looking for a 700-page chase you will be disappointed. Moby-Dick himself doesn’t really show up for Captain Ahab until chapter 132 of 135. So, change your expectations on that, if necessary. Honestly, this had as much natural science in it as some of the Darwin books I’ve read; it was fascinating to me, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you know, be advised. My favorite quote (which has nothing to do with whales or whaling or sailors or ships or the sea, but still hit me in the gut): “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Additional Recommended Reading: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway; Ahab’s Wife, or The Star Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund;
Charles Darwin: Voyaging, by E. Janet Browne

20th Century China

Fun fact: I minored in Mandarin Chinese at University and while I don’t speak it well I can still read it with some level of proficiency…not like literary critiques or political treatises, but simple stuff. I have taken a number of college-level Chinese history and literature classes, but I kind of forgot how much I loved this topic until I selected The Good Earth on a whim for book club. And then, per usual, I had to read a million more books on 20th century China.

Harriet Reads 20th Century China_feistyharriet_March 2015

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). I have so many thoughts about this book, and so many reactions and notes written in the margins. Firstly, it both angered and baffled me the attitudes and behaviors of the characters towards the women in their lives. Women are slaves, prostitutes, concubines, and bearers of children, but not equals in any way shape or form. And all the problems that come with this premise are in almost every page of this book. I realize that Wang Lung is a product of his own environment, culture, and attitudes of his country, but it still pissed me off at almost every turn. Wang Lung’s views of his own place in society are nearly completely based on what others think of him, and his opinions on his wife, concubine, and the child sex slave are all completely based on what others will think of these respective women. O-lan, the dear, loyal O-lan, works herself to the bone for her husband and their land and family, and Wang Lung is disgusted by her because she isn’t pretty and her feet are large, and this disgust continues and grows throughout his life, and it just…not okay. Other than the feminist rage, this is a sweeping epic of a family trying to adjust to the tricky cycle of poverty turning to wealth and prosperity, and the changes in the family that comes from not needing to work the land for your bread, and needing to keep up appearances. The rise and eventual implied fall of the House of Wang is so similar to that of the family who owned this land prior to Wang Lung, and we can only assume that this family will suffer a similar fate. This is a beautiful book, but it also made me very angry, but I loved it…I have so many thoughts and feelings!

Sons, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). The second of The House of Earth trilogy, I liked this book more than its Pulitzer-winning predecessor. Where “The Good Earth” follows the farmer Wang Lung as he acquires more and more land and becomes a wealthy man, “Sons” follows the story of his three sons, Wang the Landlord/the eldest, Wang the Merchant/the second son, and–my favorite–Wang the Tiger, a soldier who aspires to become a war lord over the lands of the north. These three Wang’s have children of their own and struggles and triumphs and must deal with their father’s estate and the changing times as agrarian China slowly becomes a staging ground for the Maoist revolution, the way of life of the Wang family must change with this new, rising China.

A House Divided, by Pearl S. Buck (3 stars). The third and final book in The House of Earth series, this one was my least favorite. It follows the life of Wang Yuan, son of Wang the Tiger, son of Wang Lung the farmer. Yuan trains to be a soldier for his warlord father, and then to be a revolutionary soldier at a school in the South (Nanjing, I think?), but he really just wants to be a farmer, despite never having hoed a row in his life. Farming is completely unacceptable to his father, so Yuan runs away and spends some time in what I think is Hong Kong becoming a modern Chinese man (i.e. one in western dress who goes dancing with loads of good looking, fashionable friends). During one of the many revolutions in China Yuan gets tossed in prison, is bailed out by his family, and is sent to America to escape further imprisonment.  (It’s kind of hard to tell what exactly is going on in a larger framework because Buck doesn’t name any cities, or years, or really any identifying information, which in many ways makes this series kind of timeless, but also makes it hard to figure out which rebellion the characters are fighting for/against, and how that plays out in the larger realm of Chinese history and ultimately what it means for the Wang family.) Yuan spends some time studying agriculture in the United States (Boston, I think) and makes friends with some white people (Irish Catholics, perhaps, due to the accent and red hair) and becomes much more patriotic about China than he ever was living there, moves back to China and tries to figure out what he will do with the rest of his life, i.e. find a girl to marry. I dunno…I just didn’t love this final book. Yuan seems to be both soldier and farmer, but also neither of those things. He has these very strange ideas about women and dating that are this bastardized version of East vs West/old vs new that is SUPER irritating, such as: “We’ve never been alone together, have hardly spoken, and certainly have never expressed any feelings, but I know I want to marry her because I love her and young people should be able to choose our wives instead of have our parents choose….but WHY DIDN’T SHE CHOOSE ME! THAT’S NOT OKAY! SHE SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THAT ANYONE WANTS HER AND WHY DOES SHE WANT TO BE A DOCTOR AND NOT A MOTHER! HAS SHE NO RESPECT?! SHE SHOULD FEEL SO LUCKY THAT SOMEONE AS GREAT AS ME DEIGNS TO WANT HER AT ALL!”…so you know, I have some issues with his thought processes. Anyway, this seemed to drag on and on and on and I just…I was glad when it was over.

Red Azalea, by Anchee Min (4 stars). While I read this in one sitting, I wouldn’t say this is an easy read. Anchee Min was raised in Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, was forced to denounce her teachers, became a leader in the the Red Guard (the Chinese equivalent of the Hitler Youth), and spent years working essentially as a soldier-slave on a farm, and was selected to join the film industry to work on a project for Madame Mao. Many reviews complain about choppy language and lack of introspection, and yes, both of those things exist in this book. However, you’ve got to remember that Min’s schooling was not in literature and composition and prose, or even poetry and opera. She recited by rote the teachings and writings of Mao and for 10 years the ONLY music allowed in China was 9 operas of Madame Mao which reeked of propaganda. The choppy sentences and simple language enhance the story, they are proof of the “success” of Mao’s re-education of the intellectual class to turn them to farmers and factory workers and janitors. While Min works 16 hours a day at a farm collective (which does not grow enough crops to sustain itself and has deplorable conditions) she craves human connection, emotion, something other than communist propaganda. When Min and Yan, a fellow soldier-slave, become friends and eventually lovers I wanted to cry and cheer that Min finally had some kind of human connection, that she finally could experience some kind of emotion outside of violence, control, and political propaganda which claims all emotions are unnecessary and capitalistic, and therefore punishable. I really appreciated this book, it moved me and helped me understand a lot more about Maoist China and how this man single-handedly destroyed so much of the culture and collective memory of his country.

Bound Feet and Western Dress, by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang (3 stars). I love the idea behind this autobiographical/memoir which mostly focuses on Yu-i, a woman born in China at the beginning of the 20th century who grows up and comes of age as her country moves away from its more traditional ways such as foot binding, arranged marriages, socially accepted concubines, filial responsibilities, and an abhorrent preference for sons. Yu-i’s story is told by her 20-something great-niece, Pang-Mei, who was born in Connecticut and is trying to understand her American and Chinese heritage. I loved the story; I loved Yu-i and watching her transform from a subservient woman to a strong independent one who tackled the responsibilities of her life with both Western sensibility and Eastern responsibilities. She truly was an incredible driving force of change and hope for so many Chinese women. That being said, minus one star because I didn’t love the writing (this is a first novel) and I didn’t love Pang-Mei’s additions of her life throughout the book, I felt they were detracting. In creating a dual-perspective story Pang-Mei and/or her editor/publisher did not figure out a way to help the reader determine which woman was being discussed at any given time.

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min (3 stars). I really wanted to love this book, a biographical novel of Pearl S. Buck. However, while the author is clearly passionate about Buck and her writings, her treatment of the Chinese in her writings and her lifelong dedication to good works for the Chinese…this book just doesn’t seem to do her justice. As historical fiction it is probably fine, but as a sort-of biography one of a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner she falls very short. Most of the story is focused on Willow, the narrator and childhood friend of Pearl. And while I appreciate a story about Buck told from a Chinese point of view, I feel like so much was missed and so much more was blatantly made up to make a good story. If this had simply been a story of Willow, a young peasant girl coming of age during the Boxer Rebellion and living through Mao’s terrible reign, I would have given this 4 stars. But I feel like I have to deduct a star for taking a life as prominent and famous as Pearl S. Buck and playing with chronology, characters, and history by turning her experience into fiction. (For example, an entire section of the book focuses on a hardly documented (in real life) love affair between Buck and Hsu Chih-mo, a famous Chinese poet and the husband of Chang Yu-i; yes, that Yu-i who is the star of Bound Feet and Western Dress (see review, above). However in Yu-i’s story Pearl S. Buck is not mentioned whatsoever…so….it just seemed a little more of a stretch than necessary and in digging around online for a minute I couldn’t find much that corroborated this affair. I have since ordered a proper biography and Pearl S. Buck’s autobiography, hopefully I’ll have a better response from those.

Additional Recommended Reading: Empress Orchid and The Last Empressby Anchee Min; The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang; Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie; Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan; 

Women in History

Heroines of History, by John S. Jenkins (3 stars). I liked this, I liked listening to stories of these women, some of whom I knew very little about. This book gives a few chapters about the following powerful women: Cleopatra, cunning and beautiful queen of the Nile who succeeded in bedding not one, but TWO Caesars of Rome; Isabella I of Castile who maintained her place as a co-ruler of Spain and eventually funded Columbus; Joan of Arc, soldier-maid who united France; Maria Theresa, Queen Regent and final monarch of the House of Habsburg, sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, and several other kingdoms, and Holy Roman Empress, she was also the mother of Marie Antoinette (and fourteen other children!!) and a powerful and important ruler in Europe for 40 years. Maria Theresa was by far my favorite of this series and I’ve added 2 more books about her to my stacks; Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon I and empress of France; Elizabeth I, Queen of England and patron of the Elizabethan era of literature and art, as well as a lot of bloody religious battles with Scotland, Spain, France, Ireland, and Russia; Mary, Queen of Scots who reigned for only a few years in Scotland before she was thrown into prison by her bitter rival, Elizabeth I, where she remained for almost 20 years until her execution; Catherine the Great of Russia, a ruthless ruler who killed those in the way of her rise to power, expanded the Russian empire to great loss of life, lived extravagantly while her people starved..yet her reign was considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire (and it probably was, for the nobles); Marie Antoinette, the lavish young queen of France who met her ultimate demise at the guillotine, and Madame Roland, heroine of the French Revolution who was killed during the Reign of Terror.

The Story of Joan of Arc, by Andrew Lang (2 stars). This was a quick read and a good overview of Joan of Arc, however after reading Mark Twain’s lengthy and detailed account of her, this one fell pretty flat for me. It is a quick read, and gives some good biographical background of Joan, but there is hardly any spark or personality to Lang’s Maid of France, and to lead an army, crown a king, and be burned at the stake one must have personality.

Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain; Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund; Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.

Harriet sig



Whew. If you made it through to the end of this behemoth post, you get a gold star.