Join me on a tour of my book closet … erm … library. Every week – or other week, or whenever I remember to write one of these posts – we’ll take a look at another whack of books I may (or may not) have read.
Time to take a look at a new shelf. How about … this one:
But, first, a few words on organization. Years ago, when I was still knee high to a grasshopper (or, to be specific, 18), I started working at my university’s library. It was my one and only part-time job, and it was awesome. I spent most of my years there as a page (aka shelving grunt), but I came to be pretty well acquainted with the Dewey decimal system. Sadly, much like my undergraduate knowledge of cortical systems, it is now long gone from my working memory. So my books are organized in a somewhat haphazard way, mostly by genre. “Messy” is the best way to describe the result. I gave up keeping track of my books back when the total count hovered around the 400 mark, about 3-4 years ago. Honestly, I have only a vague idea of what comprises about 1/3 of my library. And I kinda like that. Surprise books are the best surprises.
Back to this week’s shelf. Here is the left half:
It starts off with a little bit of overflow from the adjacent shelf (fantasy/sci-fi). Shocking (?) confession time: I liked the Sookie Stackhouse books better than True Blood, Alex Skarsgard notwithstanding. The latter’s plot lines seemed weaker, in my opinion, although the show did gift us the awesomeness that is Stephen Moyer’s Southern accent. Sookeh!!! And, of course, ASkars eye candy. Ahem, I’ll skip talking about Charlaine Harris’ books for now, as they rightfully belong on a different shelf.
The remainder of the left side is taken up by historical fiction. First up, Stella Duffy’s two-part series about the Empress Theodora, Theodora and The Purple Shroud. Bonus fun fact: I decided to get these novels after my husband and I chose our boy/girl names for our then-fetus; there aren’t many famous Theodoras, so I figured it might be a good idea to learn more about the one who was kind of a big deal. I probably should have picked an actual biography, but I prioritized entertainment over actual learning. My impression is that these books give the general broad strokes of Theodora’s life, suitably embroidered for effect. She led an extremely interesting life, and that is an understatement; per book cover, she was “actress, empress, whore”. How’s that for a 3-word resume?
Next up, is a three-parter about one of my favourite historical figures, Catherine de’ Medici (Madame Serpent, The Italian Woman, and Queen Jezebel). Catherine was not a particularly lovable character, but she was fascinating and complex. Niece of a pope, wife of a king, mother to three more, regent in her own right, she was feared and reviled by her subjects – a powerful woman in an age when this was considered both an oxymoron and an abomination. Eleanor Hibbert wrote an enormous number of historical novels under the pen name Jean Plaidy, back in the 50s and 60s, but most of them have been out of print for years and she is not as well known these days – more’s the pity as her books are generally both well-written and well-researched, albeit very much PG-13 (kind of a feat given much of her subject matter). A few of them are now being released in new editions, and I would highly recommend them to fellow historical novel buffs.
(As an aside, my all-time favourite historical series – The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon – is also finally being released in a new English translation. I first read these books when I was 10 or 11, and they were basically my Flowers in the Attic – slightly smutty, un-put-down-able, and generally entirely inappropriate material for that age. They’re now being marketed as “the original Game of Thrones” and, minus the dragons, they kind of are. If HBO decides to adapt them into a show, I will die and go to historical fiction heaven.)
Moving on to the right side of the shelf …
… the impromptu shelf divider is there to connote a shift to the non-fiction side. The Real Life Downton Abbey is … basically self-explanatory. It offers a look behind the doors of stately mansions during the Edwardian era, at the domestic life of the upstairs and downstairs folk. The book is fine, but nothing I hadn’t read before elsewhere. If you like the PBS show, and don’t know much about Edwardian England, this book may interest you; otherwise, it’s kind of a “meh”.
Four Queens is an excellent biography of the four daughters of Count Raymond Berenger of Provence, each of whom went on to marry men who were or became kings (some albeit briefly and/or mostly in name only). Their lives would have made for an awesome reality TV show, if television had existed in the 13th century. Or electricity. Keeping up with the Provences. I like it. And I like the book too.
Absolute Monarchs is a history of the papacy written by John Julius Norwich, whose books are always really, really good. This is no exception. I picked it up after reading Norwich’s book on the history of Venice (more on that in a minute), which featured a few papal interventions that piqued my interest (coincidentally, I was reading said book during the period when the most recent papal elections were held, so a nice bit of synergy there). I didn’t know very much about the popes, and this was an excellent primer. Fair warning: there have been a lot of them in the Catholic Church’s 2,000 year history, so you may get your Leo’s, Paul’s and John’s confused. No matter, it’s still a highly enjoyable read.
Speaking of popes, one you will probably have no trouble remembering is Pope Alexander VI, better known as Rodrigo Borgia. Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and Their Enemies is a good intro to one of history’s most infamous families. (OK, in case you’re wondering by now about what qualifies as a “good” non-fiction history book in my (100% amateur) opinion, it’s simple: it should be informative and well-researched whilst still reading like a novel as much as possible. I hate books that read like history textbooks. I also hate end notes.) Hibbert takes a non-sensational approach to what, in all fairness, is a pretty soap opera-ish story, so if you’re looking for something racier I’d suggest the TV show. I haven’t seen it, but I imagine it does for the Borgias what The Tudors did for Henry VIII (i.e. take a lot of liberties with the facts, and squeeze as many boobs as possible into an hour-long episode – literally and figuratively).
Nancy Mitford was a historical figure in her own right (more on that in another post) but she was also a writer, and she happened to write a book on one of my favourite French monarchs, Louis XIV, The Sun King. Louis’ story was pretty epic (for one thing, he reigned for a whopping 72 years during the zenith of France’s time as a military and artistic power), and this biography is more concise than sweeping, but it hits all of the high notes. For a more in-depth look at the Sun King, I would recommend Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser (one of my favourite non-fiction historical writers); it focuses primarily on his private life, rather than the politics of the era, so keep that in mind. Of course, if you’re really short on time, there is always this.
Flora Fraser’s Princesses is a biography of the 6 daughters of George III who, despite being cooped up by their parents within the royal household for most of their lives managed to rack up an impressive list of scandals and intrigues. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the Georgian/pre-Victorian era, as it also touches on the princesses’ mostly disreputable brothers (two of whom went on to be kings of Britain, while a third fathered Queen Victoria).
I mentioned John Julius Norwich’ A History of Venice before, and I don’t have much to add except to recommend it (highly!) to anyone interested in this subject. It definitely meets my criteria for a “good” history book (see above), with the added bonus that it doesn’t get too bogged down in martial details. I like my warfare in easily digestible chunks.
Rubicon by Tom Holland is another excellent read, chronicling the Roman Republic from about 49 BC to its eventual transformation into an empire. It covers everyone who was anyone in Julius Caesar’s generation, which had no shortage of legendary figures (Cicero, Spartacus, Cleopatra, to name a few). It’s a tremendously enjoyable read, both due to the subject matter (Roman politics was riveting stuff) and Holland’s writing, which is top top notch.
Lastly, we have a book I haven’t read: Washington by Ron Chernow. I have to admit, I’m more of a European history junkie. Sorry, North America – your old timey scandals are just not as juicy. However, I believe in a fully-stocked library, so I never pass up on books that expand the scope of general knowledge represented on its shelves. Who knows when I might want to read up on America’s founding fathers?
Till next time … and don’t forget to tell me what you’re reading now!