Overall, this year of reading was a mixed bag. I read 84 books. Some of them were great. Some of them were good. Some of them were truly terrible. In the end, it was actually pretty easy to select these top seven reads from 2017. Here are my picks—click on the title for a link to buy the book!
Following an independent storyline in an alternate universe from the movie, this is an excellent origin story featuring a teenaged Diana. The Amazonian princess risks exile by rescuing a mortal—only to discover that the mortal is a warbringer, a descendant of Helen Troy with the supernatural power to destroy the world. This is a marvelous tale of adventure, female friendship, girl power, mythology, and just the teeniest bit of romance. I listened to the audiobook, and it’s fantastic.
This book felt like warm comfort food or getting comfy under a blanket with a mug of hot tea. I still remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Knutson, recommending the LITTLE HOUSE books to me on the stairwell of Washington Elementary School, because reading these novels was one of my most formative reading experiences. I shared a room with my younger sister while growing up, and my mom read the entire series aloud to us. As a family of four girls, we went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder play; we stayed in a sod house; we visited the Minnesota landmarks. I am a huge fan girl. So when I heard that a new and authorized LITTLE HOUSE book was coming out in 2017, I was ecstatic—and I was not disappointed! As it is written from Ma’s (aka Caroline’s) perspective, this book offers a more realistic picture of life on the frontier than the children’s books. It is heartwarming but also deeply human. How would it feel to have a husband you love dearly who is always wanting to move on to the next place when you might be just as happy to stay? What can you find for your little girls to do that won’t drive you crazy while you try and get something done? There are some truly touching scenes between Caroline and Charles as well as some beautiful snapshots of motherhood.
What a delight! Originally published in 1970, this slim volume of real letters exchanged between Helen Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York, and a London used book dealer are an homage to the world of books and letters. Funny, irreverent, and showing humanity at its most generous, this book is more wonderful than words can express. At only 95 pages, I read this book in a single sitting and it was undoubtedly my most pleasant reading experience of the year.
And . . . another tiny book about books. I can’t help myself. In this novella, Queen Elizabeth II discovers a voracious appetite for the written word in the later years of her life. On a stroll with one of her hounds, which escapes its tether, she learns that a traveling library visits Buckingham Palace every week. It’s only polite, she feels, to borrow a book once she comes face-to-face with the librarian and a young kitchen boy perusing the shelves. Soon enough, the queen can’t stop reading for pleasure—something she’s never done before. She’s always read books, of course. But reading for enjoyment is a new concept. This begins a passionate affair with literature that leads to a surprising revelation at the end. I won’t tell!
An intense but ultimately rewarding read. “When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family” (from Goodreads). Excellently written, this a tale that will grab you and not let go. Set in the American South and exposing the harsh cruelties of slavery, this novel is not for the faint of heart but is so worth the effort. I think part of the reason I found it to be such a difficult (in the best sense) read is that I listened to it on audio. There was no escaping or skimming over the reality of injustice, and perhaps that’s a good thing. I was very satisfied with the ending, although there is a sequel that I haven’t read yet called Glory Over Everything.
This is a beautifully written, tangled-twisty mess of a feminism, deception, and shame. WOW. The Lie Tree is starkly true at particular moments, and there are many wonderful quotes within. I was riveted by the way this YA novel portrayed the way a lie takes on a life of its own and the power that even the smallest fib can wield over our lives and the lives of those around us. Read more about the book and what I thought here.
You and everyone you know should read this book, especially if they happen to love books. This is a beautiful journey of two people growing closer, of a mother and her son, of a lifelong love of literature, of what a well-lived life looks like, and of what a good death truly means. It is emotional and incredibly inspiring. I savored every carefully crafted word.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Wicked City! The novel features two narratives connected by the New York City building in which they take place—one is set in the 1920s, one in the 1990s. The stories each had their own flavor and individual aspects that I loved. The characters are true to life, the setting is vividly rendered, and both timelines are equally engaging. I breezed through this novel in a single sitting! I thought the romance could have used a little more building up but really liked the book overall. The folks at William Morrow wrote up an excellent blurb for this book, and as a copywriter I can appreciate a job well done. Here’s their teaser:
New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family.
Thank you, William Morrow, for providing me with an ARC of this book!
This is such a sweet romance! Mary Balogh shines in this tale of family, self-worth, and the love we choose to accept. Centered on an orphanage in Bath, England, Someone to Hold features two protagonists who live with the social stigma of being illegitimate. After a terrible first impression, the two become reluctant friends and eventually—spoiler alert!—fall in love. I particularly enjoyed the many facets of the female protagonist, Camille. She has far more depth than your average romance heroine! I also found her current situation and Joel’s long-term experience growing up as an orphan to be a fascinating and thought-provoking contrast. Note: This is technically book two in the Westcott series, but I didn’t read book one and felt no confusion.
Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery. . . .
Thanks to Berkley Books for giving me access to an ARC via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
A Veronica Speedwell Mystery
This was simply delightful!
*witty banter to the max
*Victorian murder mystery
*art colony + Hellfire Club + opium den
*will they or won’t they?
*I don’t even care, I love them just as they are!
Who are they? The grouchiest, most eccentric and outlandish pair of natural-scientist-amateur-investigators in London. Do look them up!
(But be sure to start with the first Veronica Speedwell Mystery, A Curious Beginning. Read my review here.)
Wow. This collection from masterful essayist Annie Dillard was beautiful, crisp, and very inspiring to me as a writer. The prose, the metaphors, the way she describes things—nature, especially—is absolutely breathtaking. If you are at all interested in exposing yourself to a whole new level of literary talent, this book of essays is your introduction to a pro.
Hello, readers! I’m trying something new today. I didn’t finish any books this past week! So instead of a review, I’m sharing a list of some anticipated future reads. I hope you find something that sounds intriguing.
Recently Added to My To-Be-Read List:
The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.03
Published: February 28, 2017 by Viking
Source: Publishers Weekly listing
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile’s quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail. SOLD!
The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn by Lori Benton
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.29
Published: April 29, 2014 by WaterBrook
Source: Fan of the author
Western North Carolina, 1787 ~ To escape a threatening stepfather and an unwanted marriage, Tamsen Littlejohn enlists the aid of Jesse Bird, a frontiersman she barely knows, to spirit her away from Morganton, North Carolina, west beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Trouble pursues, as the two men intent on seeing her recovered prove relentless in their hunt. . . . Gaining the freedom she longs for will mean running yet again, to the most unlikely refuge imaginable—the Cherokees, a people balanced on the knife edge of war.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.08
Published: October 21, 2008 by Atheneum
Source: Heard wonderful things about this book and the author
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight . . . for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.05
Published: May 3, 2016 by Atria Books
From the bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, a heartwarming and hilarious story of a reluctant outsider who transforms a tiny village and a woman who finds love and second chances in the unlikeliest of places.
Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength by Kelly Williams Brown
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.00
To-Be-Published: April 18, 2017 by Rodale Books
Source: Saw it on Goodreads
From New York Times bestselling author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps Kelly Williams Brown comes a funny, charming guide to modern civility in these—yes, we’ll say it—rather uncivil times.
Throughout the book, she provides tips on how to deal with the people and circumstances that challenge even the most socially graceful among us, advice on how to practice graciousness in everyday life, and thoughtful discussions on being kind to those around you without ever losing your sense of self.
Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.24
Published: April 5, 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Source: Listening to The Kitchen House now and loving it! I heard about that book through a trusted bookish friend.
From the author of the New York Times bestseller and beloved book club favorite The Kitchen House, a novel of family and long-buried secrets along the treacherous Underground Railroad.
Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oakes, has a deadly secret that compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad.
This book touched me on a deeply personal level, and I had to process it for a little while before writing about it. Anna Lyndsey’s amazing memoir is about her experience of a rare and unexplained physical condition that leaves her unable to be in the presence of light—not just sunlight, but soft lamps, LED screens, everything. She can’t even go to a doctor’s office. At first, I couldn’t imagine what this would be like, but her memoir describes her feelings and practical limitations with incredible detail. I was blown away by both the writing and Lyndsey’s keen insights into chronic illness and depression. This receives 5/5 stars from me!
One of the main reasons to recommend this memoir is Lyndsey’s ability to speak about her completely life-altering struggle with such eloquence, such candor, and such vulnerability. As someone who lives with chronic illness, I had many moments of, “Yes—that’s exactly what that feels like!” while reading this book. However, this is not to say that this book is all inspirational “a-ha” moments. There’s plenty of emotional turmoil here, too, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing those thoughts. Her struggle is real every step of the way—and real again after every setback.
“I am the prisoner only of my skin. Would I could claw that traitorous membrane from my bones.”
When Lyndsey’s skin comes into contact with light at the height of her illness, it literally blisters, and she is in excruciating pain for days. But thankfully she is not alone in her isolation. She has a boyfriend/eventual husband who loves her deeply and walks with her through everything. It is very touching and heartening to witness through words. For most of the time frame covered in this book, Lyndsey spends her days in a completely darkened room with cloth stuffed into the crevices of every window and door. Yet her and her husband still manage to have a meaningful relationship, despite the obstacles and depression her situation entails. This is pretty phenomenal in and of itself.
I found this memoir inspiring even though it contains so much darkness because of the magnitude of Anna’s condition and the way she handles it with strength and grace, particularly as a non-Christian. How does one endure such pain—such isolation—without the belief in the promise of eternal life or in the God who loves you just as you are? At one point, Lyndsey contemplates suicide and decides against it. I cannot imagine living life—particularly her difficult life—without the hope of the Lord, but I really admire Lyndsey for her endurance, her humor, and her choice to live the best life possible day by day.
Upon experiencing a period of remission, Lyndsey writes, “My heart is filled with gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I have been granted another chance. Relief that my worst fear, the fear of permanence, has yet again been proved unfounded.” This is the quintessential fear for so many with chronic illness—the inability to think beyond this moment, the belief that things will not get better. I love that she addressed this outright. It is such a silent, hushed thing—but it is a very real and important thing to talk about, too. I think she expressed it beautifully.
From her sense of self-loss due to periods of isolation to her humorous recitation of the ABCs of chronic illness, I strongly identify with Anna Lyndsey and various aspects of her experience. We are, as another famous Anne once said, “kindred spirits,” I think. Like me, Lyndsey is a booklover. She spends a great deal of her time listening to audiobooks. She speaks very positively about literature, saying, “I can, in my darkness, live so many different lives.” These brief forays into her literary life and the playful “Games to Play in the Dark” sections are the lightest parts of the book. Most of the games have something to do with words. These brief, engaging sections successfully break up the narrative; it was an excellent choice made by Lyndsey.
I was saddened to learn that Lyndsey’s illness continues in its intensity as of the writing of this book. But that is, alas, the nature of chronic ailments. I’ll leave you with the same hopeful words she closes her memoir with:
“Joy lurks in every mundane thing—just waiting to be found. Love is impervious to reason, and words are wonderful.”
This was a great year for me and books! What with blogging, joining the Litsy community (@annahenke), and just loving the reading life, I’m perfectly content. I read over 120 books in 2016. It’s customary in the blogosphere to do some sort of “Best of” list, and I’m excited to share mine with you. Here’s my list of the best books I read in 2016 by category!
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Thorns and Roses #2
I devoured this book! I have loved everything Sarah J. Maas has written so far. The character development in A Court of Mist and Fury is astoundingly good. I really like how Maas handles Feyre’s grief and portrays her PTSD after the events of A Court of Thorns and Roses. I couldn’t put it down! This is a series that MUST be read in order.
NOTE: This is not a YA book, in my opinion – at least, not in terms of the romance. Full-on steamy. This should have been marketed as adult fantasy.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
What a remarkable story! This fictionalization of the life of trailblazing horse trainer and pilot Beryl Markham blew me away. Set primarily during her formative years and early adulthood in Kenya, this novel about a strong historical woman who wasn’t afraid to smash boundaries is beautifully written. Beryl was flawed but fierce and endured much for “being a woman and daring to think I could be free” (Circling the Sun). I’ve put Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, on my TBR, and I’m very interested to hear the full story from the woman herself. Beryl was a private person by all accounts, however, so I hear it doesn’t have much in the way of personal relationships, which was a strength of McLain’s fictionalization. But I still need to read it!
A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn, Veronica Speedwell Mystery #1
I enjoyed this book so much that I read it twice in one year! I had to prep for the sequel coming out in January 2017. Why I loved it: It’s a Victorian historical mystery featuring an intrepid lady/amateur detective who is also a lepidopterist (specialist on butterflies and moths). Sold! There is an enigmatic, handsome taxidermist who becomes her reluctant investigative partner. Yes! There is a romance, but it’s very subtle and develops slowly. Just my cup of tea! They take refuge in an abandoned private museum of sorts. Hooray! There is a mystery about the main character’s heritage. Love it! I could go on, but I won’t.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
Brilliant! The artwork is amazing and perfectly fits the tone of the story being told. The fictional folktales within are everything one would wish for: clever, funny, poignant, and sweet. I think it’s a must-read for graphic novel fans and a great entry point for newcomers to the format.
Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, Narrated by Susie Riddell
This book was so strange and I loved it. It’s a Jane Eyre-inspired story with a quirky twist: What if Jane had been a serial killer? The tagline for the marketing was, “Reader, I murdered him.” For those unfamiliar with the real Jane Eyre, the most famous line is, “Reader, I married him.” So clever! I was hooked by the fascinating premise; however, the book was something of a surprise. Jane was quite likeable. This is in itself is a remarkable achievement for a writer. I consider myself pretty sensitive to violence, and I don’t enjoy unlikeable characters at all, so I was very impressed that Faye pulled that off. Jane kills multiple people (only bad people, mind), but I was still rooting for her in the end. The audiobook is exceptional. I would not have changed a thing.
As a side note, the premise of this book is so bizarre that it makes a great conversation piece. I had about a twenty-minute conversation with my coworkers about it at the company picnic and they all thought I’d gone mad. 🙂
Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist
I loved what Nyquist had to say about grace, forgiveness, and shame. I learned so much. Read my review here.
The Wood’s Edge by Lori Benton, The Pathfinders #1
I was so impressed with the diversity, vigor, and historicity of Benton’s writing in this first chapter of a new family saga. The story is wonderful. Read my review here.
A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley
I loved this book and look forward to everything Kearsley writes. It contains her signature Scottish history connection, a mystery in a book, and features a beautiful, intelligent heroine who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s real, and the romance is so heartwarming and completely believable. Apparently, Susanna’s daughter has Asperger’s, and that shows in the sensitivity and normalcy with which she portrays the social interactions of the main character. I thought it was fantastic! This is a solid, clean romance recommendation.
Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
This one took me a little while to get into, but I was more than amazed by the end of it! Its best qualities are the unorthodox storytelling, the various illustrations, and the gripping action/suspense. I literally gasped at the twists and turns in the last fifty pages. Definitely worth the read! A top-notch YA pick.
That’s all for 2016. 🙂 Happy New Year!
This month has been crazy busy as I’ve moved to a new place! I’ve been very occupied with setting up and settling in. Naturally, my bookshelves were one of the first things I unpacked! Shocking: I added a shelf, so I have empty space. This must be remedied ASAP.
I have to be honest: I’m TERRIBLE with change. I don’t like it and I don’t know how to deal with it. So there’s a definite theme in my nonfiction choices this month.
Full Disclosure: I work for a different division of this publisher. This is my personal review.
A great book at the perfect time! I needed this and would recommend to anyone who, like me, struggles with transitions. There were parts that felt a bit slow to me, but that’s likely because she was talking about being a mom and that doesn’t apply to my life. Other chapters, specifically “Settling in the Home Where Your Heart Thrives,” were phenomenal and applicable for any reader.
“We need to be okay with not getting over it and give ourselves permission to feel the upheaval.”—Kristen Strong, from Girl Meets Change
I learned so much from this book! It’s about being present just as you are—with God, with those around you, and with yourself. Niequist has some interesting things to say about prayer that really spoke to my heart. She talks about a model of prayer where you basically get confession and repentance out of the way first before broaching other topics with God so that you can speak freely and focus on connecting with Him. This is such a refreshing approach. I also really liked what she had to say about grace, forgiveness, and shame. Highly recommended! Now I’m trying to get my hands on everything else Shauna Niequist has written.
While I think the “thank your possessions” and “spark joy” concepts extremely materialistic and slightly ridiculous, there are a lot of practical tips in this book that are very useful. The section on how to fold properly was particularly interesting. My sock drawer has never looked better! This content of this book should be taken with a grain of salt, but there are some nuggets to be found within. I will say that I got rid of more stuff than I probably would have if I had not listened to this book while packing.
That’s all for now! Glad to say I’m finally feeling a little more settled. Until next post!
P.S. I’m currently listening to SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. It’s fascinating and very accessible. Any fellow history nerds would enjoy!
This book is hits on a topic that affects me very personally. As someone with migraines and chronic pain, I am well aware of the inflence the mind has on the body. I also have a keen interest in the subject of alternative medicine – tempered by a healthy amount of skepticism. I’ve experienced benefits from some of the treatments discussed here firsthand, while others sound as crazy to me as they do to the average Jane. This blurb from the back cover is what made me pick it up:
“Cure represents a journey in the best sense of the word: a vivid, compassionate, generous exploration of the role of the human mind in both health and illness. Drawing on her training as a scientist and a science writer, Marchant meticulously investigates both promising and improbable theories of the mind’s ability to heal the body. The rest is to illuminate a fascinating approach to medicine, full of human detail, and, ultimately, hope.” – Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook
Jo Marchant, who has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, approaches her research on the mind-body connection from a skeptical perspective, and I found her reporting credible and her insights intriguing. The first thing to know about Cure is that it is not just an exporation of the “power of positive thinking” (which the subtitle implies). However, this idea is examined in the book and the science behind this cliche as it relates to health and wellness is surprising. Marchant explores the relationship between the mind and the body from a myriad of angles, including a discussion of the placebo effect, Eastern medicine, cutting edge research, New Age woo-woo stuff, and more day-to-day factors that have more to do with the person than the medicine. Cure is a well-written popular science book, and I recommend it especially to those who have a chronic illness, those who care for someone with chronic illness, and others just interested in the topic.
One of the things I liked most about Cure is that Jo Marchant brings you personal accounts from the real people involved in the studies she discusses (researchers and subjects). These interviews and Marchant’s own observations offer a human framework that is both engaging and affecting. Some testimonials were heartbreaking and others uplifting. I feel a kinship with these people – individuals with depression, chronic pain, IBS, heart disease, etc. There’s a universal cost to having a chronic illness: the fear that things will never get better, the loss of a social life, the loss of independence, the disappointment when the newest pill doesn’t work like you’d hoped. These are all crucial elements of long-term illness, and Marchant looks at the way these “side effects” influence both the mind and the body. The research suggests that one of the best things we can do to influence our medical condition is to believe that we can get better.
Note: Marchant is clear on the fact that optimism will not cure cancer or erase the underlying causes of a physiological condition. However, it appears possible to reduce the experience of certain symptoms through some of the methods discussed in this book, including a positive outlook. She is in favor of a medical approach that integrates what research tells us about the mind as well Western medicine. In fact,the most promising thing in here (in my view) is the research that supports using the mind’s influence to decrease the dosage of traditional drugs, and the terrible side effects they entail.
Jo Marchant’s reporting is compelling and the writing is exceptionally good. In the first chapter, she relates the research behind the widely accepted concept of the placebo effect. You’ve probably heard of it, but did you know that in certain situations/conditions a placebo pill produces a measurable neurological response? As in, your brain releases the same chemicals as it would if you took the actual pharmaceutical? I found this fascinating. She also investigates acupunture, biofeedback, and meditation. Several chapters are dedicated to things that most would not consider “treatment” at all, like the effect of spiritual beliefs and social connection on an ill person and the benefit that patients get from having face-to-face time with their medical provider.
After reading Cure, I have no doubt that our medical establishment can benefit from more exploration and integration of the mind-body connection. Of course, I believed this to start with. Still, I came across a lot of new information on alternative treatments and found the reading experience very enjoyable. Since most medical research is funded by pharmaceutical companies – and most of these treatments don’t involve pharmaceuticals – an upheaval in the world of medicine to embrace and explore this connection anytime soon is unlikely. However, with the education of doctors and patients about this topic and more studies like the ones recounted in Cure, I believe progress can be made in the way modern medicine – and people in general – think about the link between the mind and the body. One influences the other more than you think, for good or ill.
Acquired through: public library
I am a big Boot Riot fan—the posts, the podcasts, the whole shebang—so I decided to take up their 2015 Read Harder challenge. I like to take up a challenge every year to stretch my reading horizons (and be inspired to catch up on my TBR pile). It’s definitely made me pick up a few books that I wouldn’t have already, and I still have some interesting categories yet to fill!
Here’s a (slightly past) midyear update of my progress so far:
A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon
A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
A collection or anthology of short stories
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
A book published by an indie press
The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing Diaries of Five Women From the Gospels by Frank Viola and Mary E. DeMuth
A book by or about someone who identifies as LGBTQ
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfield
A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
How to Enjoy Reading Your Bible by Keith Ferrin
A YA novel
Atlantia by Ally Condie
A sci-fi novel
This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
A romance novel
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
A Pulitzer Prize winner from the last ten years
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A book that is a retelling of a classic story
Cinder by Melissa Meyer
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
A graphic novel, memoir, or comic collection
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffnegger
A “guilty pleasure” book
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
A book published this year
The Accidental Empress by Alison Pataki
A self-improvement book
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
Tasks still to go:
A collection of poetry
A book that someone else has recommended to you
A book that was originally published in another language.
A book published before 1850
A book that takes place in Asia
A book by an author from Africa
A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous community
That’s it for now! If you have any suggestions for the remaining categories, I’d love to hear them! Happy reading!
I don’t read a lot of nonfiction; I never have. Recently, I’ve been dabbling a bit–trying to broaden my reading range. I’ve heard great things about Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I just finished and I loved it!
Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra is crazy good. Cleopatra’s full, publicly extravagant life is a biographer’s dream– so full of riches and scandal. Schiff handles the complexity and historical ambiguity of Cleopatra’s life expertly. She descibes her as “a stubborn, supreme exception to every rule” (p. 302). She makes no apologies for Cleopatra. She relates how she schemed desperately to win the favor of Caesar, murdered her family members, ruled with superior intelligence, and changed the face of female rulers forever. Schiff tells us what historians have said about her, and puts contemporary opinions (particularly Cicero’s) in proper perspective. She states the possibilities but doesn’t use absolutes. I particularly appreciated her approach to Cleopatra’s relationships. We all know about Caesar and Mark Antony, but what is the real story? Using historical evidence, Schiff tells of how they met, interacted, and what that the evidence suggests about their personal relationship. To her credit, she doesn’t allow Cleopatra to be cast as the demon seductress that history has painted her, but neither does she romanticize Cleopatra’s shrewd nature. She emphasizes her powerful presence and allure, but admits that she wasn’t that attractive. Schiff addresses the role that history and legend have cast her in, the snake-carrying seductress, but argues with convincing evidence that there is more to the story: “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank” (301).
And what a story it is! The realistic portrait of Cleopatra in Stacy Schiff’s biography is even more extraordinary than the legend. As she puts it: “There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it” (p. 302). Cleopatra was ridiculously rich and Alexandria’s extravagance is legendary. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the descriptions of her lavish parties–or rather just her lavish style of existence. In a description of the dinner that Cleopatra threw for Antony when they met, Schiff makes it clear that the truth-in this case-is indeed stranger than fiction: “It was a scene so stunning that Shakespeare deferred to Plutarch, who had already pulled out all the adjectival stops for him. Surely something curious is afoot when the greatest Elizabethan poet cribs from a straight-backed biographer” (p. 161).
There are so many reasons why Schiff deserves all the praise and acclaim she has received for this book. To name a few more:
Her prose is striking. Her descriptions manage to convey the sight, smell, taste, and luxury of Cleopatra’s Alexandria in a way one would think impossible, given that we are talking about the ancient world:
“During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses’ hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. Until well into the evening, when the vermilion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds andyellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world.” (p. 68)
–Talk about place writing. A job seriously well done.
The reader also finds tons of historical ‘trivia’ throughout the book. I really enjoyed this. Most of it is the sort of thing that nobody knows except the odd history professor and a Jeopardy fanatic, but it’s a delightful surprise when something pops out at you. I had a ton of, “I never knew that!,” moments with this book. I suppose that’s what nonfiction is all about. Maybe I should read some more often…
More importantly, you should read Cleopatra: A life. Whether or not you like nonfiction, you will appreciate this book…and you might possibly learn the answer to a jeopardy question and win thousands of dollars someday, thanks to me (and Stacy Schiff). You’re welcome.