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Archive for December, 2010

Ah, New Year’s Eve.  While others will be heading out on the town tonight, laden with high spirits as well as alcoholic ones, I will most likely be curled up on the couch with a book until I go to bed at some absurdly early hour (generally, one so early that even senior citizens look at me askance).  Life is good.

But it also means that today is the last day of 2010 and therefore my last chance to get a review up in even a remotely timely manner (because if you’re reviewing books from last year, even if that was only yesterday, it just doesn’t seem right).  So I bring you not one, not two, but three reviews, which conveniently gets my total number of books reviewed this year up to 120.  And how better to end the year than with the delightful novels of Eva Ibbotson?

Magic Flutes may be my least favourite Ibbotson novel, though as I love all of her novels that isn’t a particularly impressive distinction.  It was only her second adult novel, after the more successfully executed A Countess Below Stairs, but somehow reads like a first attempt.  Her petite heroine Tessa is an orphaned Austrian princess with a costly castle and a love for music.  The novel opens in 1922 with Tessa in Vienna working backstage for an opera company while her aged aunts occupy the family castle, hopeful that a buyer will appear.  And appear he does in the form of the mysterious English millionaire Guy Farne, who buys the castle and hires Tessa’s opera company to perform The Magic Flute in the castle’s private theatre in a grand gesture aimed at Nerine, his first love.  But, of course, Guy and Tessa fall in love, complicating matters somewhat.

The plot itself is eerily familiar to A Countess Below Stairs, from the nobly-born young woman working a menial job to the heroine’s childhood friend slash intended husband to the hero’s narcissistic fiancée.  And A Countess Below Stairs does a better job with all of these characters, making both them and the situations they find themselves in almost believable, unlike in Magic Flutes.  Tessa and Guy are shockingly forgettable, to the extent that when I wrote my notes up on the book only hours after reading it I actually had to look Guy’s name up since I’d already forgotten it.  The supporting cast of impoverished nobles and eccentric musicians supply most of the comedy and all of the memorable characters.  Prince Maxi, Tessa’s dim-witted intended, is particularly wonderful with his dual passions of hunting water fowl and watching (and re-watching ad nauseum) silent films.  The adoring ballet dancer Heidi is a perfect match for him.  Indeed, I cared more about their strange relationship than I did for Guy and Tessa’s.  Guy is not present enough to make a real impact and Tessa has no bite, leaving her with a rather insipid personality.  Still, that didn’t keep me from enjoying this fairy tale and warming to their happy ending.

Madensky Square, on the other hand, is probably Ibbotson’s most skillfully written novel and certainly her most mature, both in terms of characters and themes.  Set in Vienna, of course, in 1911, it follows a year in the life of Susanna Weber, a dress-maker, a devoted mistress, a loyal friend, and an altogether charming heroine.  We learn about Susanna’s life prior to moving to Vienna, her youth in the country, an early love affair and the daughter it produced who was then given away, and her introduction to the General, her great love.  But mostly we learn about Susanna’s life in Madensky Square where her salon is located.  We know her neighbours, her employers, her friends and her customers.  We love and loathe them as she does.  We long to taste the one pear her forlorn pear tree has born, to listen to the child piano prodigy Sigi as he practices for hours each day, to watch life go by in the square. 

Susanna is unique among Ibbotson’s heroines in that she is mature and independent, most assuredly a woman and a force to be reckoned with.  Her love for her General and for her lost daughter shapes but does not control her.  She has other interests and concerns, is a friend and a neighbour and, delightfully, a match-maker between the bluestocking Edith and the butcher Huber.  The people of Madensky Square love and lust, physically as well as intellectually.  My sensible, Methodist exterior with its disdain for alcohol and parties hides my romantic, Catholic interior that longs for beautiful clothes, frivolous nightgowns and large feather beds.  These two identities are always at war: my sensible Bachelor of Commerce reality versus the future as a Viennese opera singer I denied as impractical years ago when I was being urged to go there to train.  Ibbotson makes it seem that not only is it natural to image and long for such things, it is imperative to the Viennese way of life.  I want to live in Ibbotson’s Vienna with its opera-goers and soldiers, mistresses and anarchists.  It is a city intent on sensual pleasures and this attitude gives all its residents a certain glamour.

And, finally, The Morning Gift.  Intellectually, I know the more nuanced Madensky Square should be my favourite Ibbotson novel.  But it’s not.  I love The Morning Gift.  I love it to the extent that when I finished reading it I seriously contemplated starting it right over again just so that I wouldn’t have to part from it so soon.  It has all my favourite things: Austrian refugees, a wealthy, scholarly hero, a marriage of convenience, and largely academic setting.  Knowing that Persephone wanted to publish this title but was unable to gain the rights might make me love it even more (but, oh, if that had been able to publish it how wonderful that would have been!).

Ruth Berger is left behind in Vienna in 1938 when her family flees to England after the Anschluss.  Unable to leave on her own, family friend Quin Somerville proposes a marriage of convenience that would allow Ruth to leave as the wife of a British national.  The two arrive in England, Ruth is reunited with her family and Quin resumes his normal life of teaching at the University, squiring elegant women about town, and planning his next scientific research trips while the lawyers begin the complicated process of annulling the marriage.  But, of course, it’s not as simple as that.

Ruth is wonderful in that she’s less fantastically perfect than many of Ibbotson’s other heroines.  She’s also a very serious student, which is rare and always appreciated.  On the other hand, like all of Ibbotson’s heroines, she’s devoted to music and nature and has a remarkable gift for making friends everywhere and at all social levels.  But I love Ibbotson’s heroines because they are that way.  Fantastical as they may be, that doesn’t keep me from wishing there were more (any?) people like them in the real world.  Her heroes, on the other hand, usually leave a lot to be desired.  By that standard, Quin is rather good.  Frankly, after the over-loaded Marek in A Song for Summer, anyone is going to look fantastic.  Yes, Quin’s a bit broody and emotionally distant (strangely at war with his compassionate treatment of so many European refugees) but he’s not too over the top and generally seems quite human and intelligent, which is what makes the critical miscommunication between him and Ruth so particularly frustrating, as neither had come across as proud or stubborn until that key moment.

Ibbotson preys on a particular weakness of mine: scientific men, particularly naturalists out in the field.  The combination of adventures, athleticism, and academia is a potent mixture, one that fueled many a childhood day-dream.  Quin is the personification of these fantasies with the added bonus of a personal fortune and seaside estate.  If such men exist (if, indeed, they ever existed outside of books) is it too much to ask that one may find and fall in love with me?

Though I make rank some more highly than others, I love all of Ibbotson’s novels.  I love the comfort I derive from them and the way that each of them transports me into a fantasy world of pastel-coloured Austrian castles, the green English countryside, and straightforward but sophisticatedly-executed romantic plots.  Ibbotson died this fall at the age of 85, leaving readers the many joys and delights found in both her adult and children’s books but still you can’t help but wish there had been more!

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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I was alternately infuriated and impressed by Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine, making for a very emotional reading experience as I swung between the two extremes.  I found the first lengthy chapter on the Lubavitch community particularly difficult to get through.  I am less than enthusiastic about organized religion at the best of times and am easily incensed by the extreme factions within faiths, particularly ones with such missionary zeal (though the Lubavitch passion for conversions extends only to other Jews since, according to their beliefs, “only Jews have a godly soul, the piece of the self that yearns for holiness.  Non-Jews can be ethical, benevolent, and compassionate, but they lack the divine spark, the aspect of the Jew that transcends her physical nature and seeks communion with God” (p. 226)). 

This was my main problem in judging the book: separating my feelings towards the group’s religious practices from the individual voices of the girls themselves.  And most of the book is devoted to the unique experiences of these girls and it’s wonderful.  Levine has highlighted an impressive variety of girls within what, to most outsiders, appears to be a homogenous society urging conformity rather than individuality.  The girls are energetic, withdrawn, some happy, some not, some deeply religious and some struggling with their faith.  You truly feel, after reading the profiles, you’ve sat and chatted with them in their homes as Levine did.  I don’t know how better to express it than to say that the girls are very real and that’s something that is difficult to pull off in any book, never mind one by a writer who began this as a graduate studies project.  The writing is far from academic, giving this book widespread appeal.

Sometimes, for me, it’s a little too far removed from academic writing: if there was one thing I could change, I would wish that Levine had been able to restrain her impulse to put so much of herself into her writing.  The saga of her personal spiritual development intrudes too much.  I would prefer facts and clear-eye analysis (teenage girls are already dramatic enough, we don’t need the researcher to be going on a similar emotional journey), not the ramblings of a would-be convert.  Her strength is when she focuses on the girls, not herself.

Perhaps what Levine was most impressed by after getting to know the girls in the community was how confident they were and how unique and outgoing in comparison with their secular, public-school peers.  Lubavitch girls spend most of their time with other women, only interacting with men when they’re at home with their fathers and brothers.  Unlike girls growing up in co-educational environments, Lubavitch girls never feel the pressure to subdue their natural personalities to flatter a male classmate or to appear more ‘feminine’ in order to catch his attention.  As far as Levine can see, there are far more loud and rambunctious, outgoing and assertive girls in the typical Lubavitch classroom than in a typical public school classroom elsewhere in the city.  For Levine, that’s one of the great benefits of the community: the confidence it gives the girls to be themselves, without them feeling the need to subvert their personalities to fit the so called ‘norm’.  While most American girls seek validation from external sources, namely males, as they hit their high school years, “…Lubavitch girls, ensconced in their patriarchal system, validate their own existence and define their own standing in the world – at least until the marriage search.  Spirited personality, not the ability to inspire male desire, is the key to popularity in their circles” (p. 214).

I think that because I went to an all-girls school for my teen years, this revelation had less of an impact on me than it did on Levine.  The attitudes and energy she finds so extraordinary among the Lubavitch girls were the norm when I was at school.  Levine at one point describes the girls as “child-like” in their behaviour, referring to how loud and playful they are when she first meets them.  I really disliked this description.  Joy and confidence are two things most children possess but that does not make them childish traits.  As far as I’m concerned, the confidence she finds so extraordinary in these girls proves the value of a single-gender education system, not a strict, religious community.

The Lubavitch definition of acceptable behaviour for girls (and you are considered a girl until you marry, usually around the age of 20) is, as you would expect, quite narrow.  Your fate in life is to marry, have children, and keep the faith.  For many, this clear direction gives them a “combination of comfort, direction, and a sense of strength that eases their lives and cultivates a deep-seated confidence in their ability to influence the wider world” (p. 196). But for those girls who hope for more than what their mothers and sisters and neighbours have, who want careers or even just the chance to experience secular culture, this world can seem stifling.  As Levine notes, “…there is little place for the person who falls beyond basic assumptions about belief, desire or personality.  For many, a limited band of choices can offer a measure of safety, but for others, it walls off the only satisfying options” (p. 204).  “For all its strengths, this culture is miserable for some of the most creative, passionate people: the trailblazers whose needs and visions are not contained with their world” (p. 208).  These are the girls I sympathized with most, the ones who want to know what else is out there, the ones who have questions they haven’t been able to find answers to within the community.  They want to do more, to know more, to be more than they have been told they can do/know/be within their community.  The conflict this creates is awful for both the girls and their families and I can only be thankful that I have the parents I have and that I’ve have never had to face the prospect of alienating my family and all my friends in order to pursue my chosen path.

Read this book.  I have my issues with the theology of the group but the book is marvelous and perhaps the most educational and fascinating thing I’ve read all year since almost all of the information it contained was new to me.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week

Look, so much restraint after my glut of picks last week (which have provided delightful entertainment over the holiday break)!  But I’m back to work today, after quite a long break for both the move and holidays, so it’s only right that my loot is a little scaled back.  Also, I’m really trying to focus on reviewing all of the books I read in November and December but haven’t yet written about, hoping to get my favourites done before 2011 (I know, time is running out).

I’ve been working hard to make use of my 2010 library holds and am down to having only 12 left.  If I don’t use them I lose them, which is an awful, awful thought.  Any bright ideas for what I should request? 

Here’s my new loot: 

 

The Reluctant Bride: One Woman’s Journey (Kicking and Screaming) Down the Aisle by Lucy Mangan
Lucy Mangan’s column in The Guardian is a constant source of delight and amusement in my life.  Her family and their collective (hopefully exaggerated) neuroses prove endlessly fascinating and I’ve been looking forward to reading one of her books for some time.  Now, finally, I live somewhere with a library that has at least one of them!

 

The Long Afternoon by Giles Waterfield
Simon has this on his ‘50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About’ list and he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

 

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
I continue to reread Ibbotson’s adult novels, moving on to The Morning Gift which was probably my favourite after I first read it. 

 

My Mother’s Wedding Dress: the Life and Afterlife of Clothes by Justine Picardie
I’m hoping to have the same kind of experience with this as Eva did.  I love to read about clothes and fashion but when I read Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser this summer, though it started well, I grew less enthralled as the book progressed; hopefully I’ll have more success here!

 

Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain by Matthew Engel
I love trains.  Love them.  I love to ride them, read about them, and, in my day-to-day life, work for a company that runs them.   

 

Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices by Chitrita Banerji
I’m endlessly fascinated by Indian culture and food so this sounds perfect for me!

 

The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner
Rarely can I resist any history book about WWII and if it’s written by Gardiner then resistance becomes absolutely impossible. 

 

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James
I don’t read a lot of detective fiction but everything I’ve heard about this book has been enthusiastic so I had to try it. 

 

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love edited by Anne Fadiman
I love reading about the habits of other readers, particularly if they’re writers, which is exactly what this essay collection promises.

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The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, a largely autobiographical novel in diary form chronicling the life of an upper-middle-class ‘provincial lady’ in the 1930s,  is one of those books that I can go back to time and again without ever tiring.  Humourous and intelligent, it’s clever and comforting at the same time, a book to curl up and laugh with.  Ever since first reading the Provincial Lady books I’ve wanted to try Provincial Daughter by R.M. Dashwood (Delafield’s daughter), written in much the same style as her mother’s classic but featuring a typical housewife of the 1950s as its heroine.  I’d heard mixed reviews from those who had read Provincial Daughter and so was somewhat hesitant as I began it, worried that a disappointment with the daughter might somehow taint my attitude towards the mother.

But that was not the case.  Provincial Daughter doesn’t have the depth of characterization found in The Diary of a Provincial Lady nor quite the same intelligent sense of humour but, judged on its own merits, it’s an amusing book.  The edition I had from the library (Virago Modern Classic) called it a precursor to Bridget Jones’ Diary and I would have to agree that it is, in both form and tone.  Hens Dancing by Rafaella Barker, which I’ve just begun reading, seems to be another in this line, picking up the tale of the modern housewife in the 1990s (now divorced, of course).  Indeed, it seems the perfect book to read so soon after Provincial Daughter.

Provincial Daughter is particularly fascinating when contrasted with The Diary of a Provincial Lady, allowing the reader to compare the attitudes, habits, and stresses on the women of the 1930s compared with those of the 1950s.  The Provincial Lady’s family was largely absent from her daily life whereas the Provincial Daughter’s life revolves around her three young sons with significant contributions from her doctor husband.  The Lady had the requisite domestic help and while the Daughter does gain some help over the course of the novel (in the form of an emotional young German woman meant to help care for the children) she still does most of the housework herself and all of the errands.  The Daughter’s days are full of domestic activities and sound quite exhausting whereas the Lady’s seemed to revolve very much around her social circle and amusingly awkward encounters.  I love the Provincial Lady but I find it much easier to like and respect the Provincial Daughter.  I’m rather shocked by this reaction since I’m usually far more inclined to prefer the domestically carefree lifestyle practiced by the Provincial Lady than the more stressful one allotted to her Provincial Daughter.

Some of the Provincial Daughter’s thoughts are eerily familiar to those of the Provincial Lady, particularly from the few occasions when we see the Provincial Daughter outside of her home, mingling and feeling inferior to others at social settings.  This excerpt in particular felt as though it could have come from the pen of the Provincial Lady herself:

Presence of A.F. undoubtedly lends tone to the party, everyone’s conversation is unusually cultured, find myself very soon involved in deep discussion on Doctor Zhivago with slender young man with eyelashes.  He has much to say, but so, owing to Susan’s excellent cocktails, have I.  Neither of us is so tactless as to ask the other outright if they have Actually Read Dr. Z, which in my case is just as well, and I suspect in Eyelashes’ too.  Nonetheless we both quote the critics and feel that we are sustaining the right note. (p. 190)

For me, the main weakness of Provincial Daughter was a tendency to rely on precocious children for humour.  You can only be amused by loud and abrasive boys for so long (both in literature and in life).  But it’s a fun, quick read that brings a smile to your face, so, despite the never-ending antics of young boys, it certainly wasn’t time wasted.

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Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland edited by David Rose is a follow-up to the successful They Call Me Naughty Lola, both volumes of amusingly odd personal ads from the London Review of Books.  I’m sure there are many perfectly normal ads in the LRB but reading them would be no fun as they’re certainly meant in earnest.  It’s difficult to get proper amusement from people looking for true connections.  Thankfully, there seems to be a never-ending supply of people willing to invest time and money into composing hilarious blurbs (probably in many cases with the express hope of seeing them published in a volume like this).  Here are a few of my favourites to brighten up your day: 

Tall, handsome, well-built, articulate, intelligent, sensitive, yet often grossly inaccurate man, 21.  Cynics (and some cheap Brentwood psychiatrists) may say ‘pathological liar’, but I like to use ‘creative with reality’.  Join me in my 36-bedroomed mansion on my Gloucestershire estate, set in 400 acres of wild-stag populated woodland. (p. 23)

Catterich Ladies’ Circle.  I don’t want to meet on Tuesday mornings anymore.  I don’t want to take the dictation for Kate’s obituary notice in the paper.  I don’t want to start the Christmas lights petition.  I really don’t like golf – I don’t understand it and all that waiting around hurts my knees.  I don’t want my photograph taken with you all for the local paper, celebrating our ‘fun walk’ for the blind.  I don’t want a video intercom installed to ‘make me feel more secure’ – it’s not really like the Bronx here just yet.  I know all about the benefits of a high fibre diet – please don’t make me listen to the man from the well-woman clinic giving a talk about it.  I’m glad that the grandchildren never visit; they smell and have terrible manners.  I know you all mean well – but I want to behave inappropriately with a man half my age and be the rumour that opens the meeting I’ll be absent from next Tuesday morning.  (p. 113)

The finest mind in the academic world conceived this ad, but it was his secretary who took two and a half hours out of her day to collate his angst-ridden ramblings, phone the LRB and pay for it with her own money.  He’s basically looking for an affair with a twenty-something idiot tart who needs good grades.  I’m looking for a better job, a decent pension package, and a man to 50 who’s great in bed and doesn’t make condescending comments about every damn book I read.  Man, 57.  Or his secretary, 43. (p. 64)

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Remember when I used to post several reviews a week?  Ah, for those distant halcyon days.  Well, not so halcyon actually.  It was the middle of winter and I was miserable so all I did was sit inside and read and, after I started blogging, write about those books.  This fall and winter by contrast have been eventful, more than a little stressful, and incredibly productive for me personally, if not for this blog.  I have been reading the whole time, though not always at my normal rate, but the focus has really been on getting my life sorted out.  But now it’s (mostly) sorted.  I’m home and I’m ridiculously happy.  I’m giddy in a way I haven’t been in at least six years, since I last lived in Vancouver.  I look and behave so differently from the Claire of only a few weeks ago and all the changes are for the better.  I have been described as ‘bubbly’ – absolutely not a word that could have been applied to me before.  I’m just so ridiculously happy that it feels like joy is seeping out of every pore.  I’m sure I’m incredibly annoying to be around but life is blissfully good.  And so now, finally, I shall turn my energies to reviewing the many, many books I’ve neglected to tell you all about this year.  Let’s see how many I can review before 2010 ends!

I read Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff at the end of November and adored it.  It’s absolutely what you would term a popular biography, something with widespread appeal rather than academic focus and this suited me perfectly.  My knowledge of the ancient world is essentially nonexistent and though I may have grown up with a best friend who was obsessed with ancient Egypt it was an enthusiasm I never shared; a society so fond of cats did not sit well with me and could only be viewed with suspicion.  But my beloved all-girls school instilled me with a passion for strong female leaders and I’ve always been bothered by the portrayal of Cleopatra as a sexpot rather than a strong ruler in her own right, independent of the Roman men with whom she was so closely associated.

Schiff is very upfront about the shortage of unbiased information of the infamous queen.  History was written by the victors even then and, to the detriment of Cleopatra’s legacy, the victors were the fiercely misogynistic Romans whose versions of events and whose branding of the Egyptian queen as a great seductress ironically determined her iconic status through the ages.  She was the richest person in the world, a skillful politician, a superbly educated amateur scientist, and the mother of children sired by the two most famous Romans of the day: Caesar and Mark Antony.  Yet all most people remember is Elizabeth Taylor with too much eyeliner: 

Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time?  Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative.  Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power.  Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous…We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding.  From the Roman point of view she ‘enslaved’ them both.  Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception. (p. 4)

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.  Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest.  Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence – in her ropes of pearls – there should, at least, be some kind of antidote.  Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than a seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (p. 298)

Mark Antony is rather emasculated by this biography, portrayed as eternally juvenile, preferring athletics and ribald jokes to the political and military machinations that would determine his fate.  His poorly executed and painfully prolonged suicide is in sharp contrast to Cleopatra’s elegant control of her own death (most likely by a prepared poison, not snake bite).  As Schiff notes, it was only in death that Cleopatra was able to earn the respect of her Roman foes: 

Cleopatra’s was an honourable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death.  She had presided over it herself, proud and unbroken to the end.  By the Roman definition she had at least done something right: finally it was to her credit that she had defied the expectations of her sex. (p. 289) 

Schiff paints a fascinating portrait not only of Cleopatra but of her time and her contemporaries, of the politics that shaped her world and her destiny.  I was particularly interested by the disparity between the rights of Egyptian and Roman women, notably the lack thereof for the latter group, regardless of social class.  Divorce seems to have been hugely popular among upper-class Romans, trading one wife in when a more politically advantageous match could be had.  Egyptian women, by contrast, could own and run businesses on their own (not to mention rule the nation).   They were not equal with men but they certainly came closer to equality than any of their foreign sisters. 

All in all, I was very impressed by this book.  There was a lot of new information to take in but Schiff’s skill as a writer (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov) makes the entire experience engaging and exciting.  Highly recommended, particularly for history buffs and readers interested in strong female leaders.

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Library Lust

Kenneth Jay Lane's Home Library

A Christmas gift for all those people who wanted something cluttered and warm.  I may desperately want to run in and tidy but I know that for some of you this is the ideal setting to just curl up with a good book.  Enjoy!

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credit: The Guardian

 

My father is a passionate watcher of “Charlie Rose” on PBS and very thoughtfully let me know that Deborah Mitford had been a guest on last night’s show, discussing her life and her new book Wait for Me!  I was able to catch the interview this afternoon when PBS reaired it and it was absolutely delightful!  Debo was absolutely charming and Charlie, one of the most professional interviewers around, seemed to have fallen rather in love with her by the end (as any right-thinking person would, I think).  I’m now even more eager for my copy of Wait for Me! to arrive from the publisher but in the meantime I may fall back on In Tearing Haste.

The inteview (not some piffling little piece but a full 22 minutes) is currently up on the Charlie Rose website if you’d like to watch it.  I hope it’s viewable from all regions.

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Happy Christmas!

T.F. Simon

Today is the big day in my house – the main festive meal happens tonight (fried fish, potato salad, and broccoli) followed by present opening (none of this waiting until Christmas morning for us) – so things are predictably chaotic.  There’s lots of wrapping left to do, some last minute cleaning before my aunt and brother come over for dinner, and maybe a few very last minute gifts to purchase as well.  My mom is on the phone with the relatives in Czech Republic, wishing them merry in that incomprehensible and strangely comforting language, and my dad is running around trying to tidy up his dining room-based home office so we can lay the table for tonight.  The day is off to a good start and may it continue in that manner!  By this evening everything will have returned to its normal calm and we’ll be able to settle down to our usual drama-free Christmas Eve celebrations. 

Here’s hoping that all of you have happy and healthy holidays with the ones you love.  Merry Christmas!

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