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What are you reading?


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#76 dirac

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Posted 14 March 2007 - 02:44 PM

I read mostly biographies and right now I am two-thirds of the way through Doris Kearns Goodwin "A Team of Rivals" on the presidency of Lincoln.---it is eye-opening to read of his Cabinet---(most of them did not agree with him)---it is a pleasure sometimes to sink back into the past.....


Not to mention the adroit way Lincoln disposed of the dangerous ones. Gore Vidal gives a nice account of the goings on in his novel, "Lincoln."

I understand that the popularity of biographies has been rising and they are now the most popular form of historical non-fiction. Also recall reading BTW that many men prefer reading non-fiction and some read no fiction at all -- it's a major difference in the reading habits of the sexes, apparently.

#77 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 14 March 2007 - 04:15 PM

Bedside: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin in a new translation by Natasha Randall. We, written in the early 20s, was apparently one of the first modern dystopias and a model for both 1984 and Brave New World, although it wasn’t published in Russia until the 1980s. The action takes place 1000 years in the future in “The One State,” a city made entirely of glass. “Glass” as in you can see – and be seen -- through the walls. You only get to draw the blinds if you’ve registered in advance for an hour-long intimate encounter with that special someone and can produce the required pink ticket by way of documentation. Heartily recommended (the book, not the pink-ticket system!) Cued up: The Exquisite by Laird Hunt.

Ipod: The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles and read by Derek Jacobi. Somewhat abridged, unfortunately, although I will admit that not every line is compelling, even in Fagles’ headlong translation, and some of them can certainly be dispensed with without doing great violence to the fabric of the work. (That being said, one of my favorite bits – a simile comparing the blood running down Menelaus’ wounded thigh to the purple stain carefully applied to a bridle’s carved ivory cheekpiece – has been omitted along with the battle scene it was buried in.) The Odyssey and The Aeneid (read by Ian McKellan and Simon Callow, respectively, both translated by Fagles, and neither abridged) are cued up next. I read these all 30+ years ago in college (in Lattimore’s and Fitzgerald’s translations, although I did manage to stagger through a few verses in the original). Listening to Jacobi’s wonderful rendition has been an absolute blast – much more fun than the first time around! I’ve been particularly struck by alien and yet at the same time utterly contemporary bronze age age Greece seems to me now. It mostly seemed alien when I was 20; now it seems like where I work, but with different bling.

Just finished: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. Chick lit for bluestockings. (Or, alternatively, The Corrections with real estate. Four Manhattan apartments plus one in Brooklyn, a summer house in the Berkshires, and another in the Hamptons. What is more New York than the quest for real estate?) An enjoyable comedy of manners with some genuinely lovely moments, but not nearly so profound a take on pre-and post 9/11 New York as it was hyped to be. (The hype is not the author's fault, of course.) Wait for the paperback. Two niggling complaints. 1) Too many Britishisms in the mouths of 30 something Manhattanites. The ones I know don’t “ring off” the phone, “fancy” the guy they hope to date, or (intentionally) consume anything at “tea-time.” 2) It feels as if it’s been written by someone who’s visited New York, but never actually lived here. The depictions of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath especially read as if they were (artfully) pieced together from various eyewitness accounts, but not actually experienced. (Note to Leigh Witchel: knitting features prominently in the depiction of one of the characters.)

And just before that, Imperium by Robert Harris. While Cicero prosecutes assorted criminally corrupt officials and runs for the Roman senate, his slave secretary invents shorthand! What are you waiting for? No, really, it’s almost as much fun as Burr! There’s even some real estate ...

#78 bart

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Posted 14 March 2007 - 05:04 PM

Those Ipod tapes sound interesting. At least the Homer part. Facing the Aeneid, though, would be very brave. Even abridged. :(

I think you've hit the nail on the head about the power of the best historical material when you write:

I’ve been particularly struck by alien and yet at the same time utterly contemporary bronze age age Greece seems to me now. It mostly seemed alien when I was 20; now it seems like where I work, but with different bling.

It's not easy, even for an academic historian, to remain loyal -- in tone, content, language, world view, etc. -- to the historical period, while stressing situations and themes that are important to those of us living today. This is the line that separates, I think, the best historical novelists from those who merely turn modern characters loose in some romanticized past.

The success of Harris's Imperium is partly due to having caught the balance between past world and modern sensibility very well. But I've been amazed that none of the reviews I've read has mentioned that there have been a large number of Cicero-dependent historical novels in recent years, and that they cover pretty much the same ground.

I guess that's because there are so many historical sources that tell us great detail about the major personages of the late Roman Republic. It's more than just Plutarch. Cicero's own speeches, law cases, other writings are truly voluminous, and have helped turn him into a highly unlikely literary celebrity today.

If you liked Imperium -- as I did for the most part -- you might want to talk a look at some of the other works of fiction that deal with this period. Among the many recent works of fiction which include Cicero as a major character, and rely very heavily on his writings, are Steven Saylor's excellent series of crime novels, Roma Sub Rosa, starring a detective called Gordianus the Finder; Colleen McCullough's 6-novel Masters of Rome series, which covers several generations from Marius and Sulla to the aftermath of the death of Caesar; and the BBC/HBO mini-series, Rome.

The Cicero of Imperium is a mainly sympathetic character. The book takes him pretty much at his own self-evaluation. Saylor's Cicero -- who employs the fictional Gordianus in several of his cases -- is presented mostly postiively as well. McCullough's, while a man of principle, is self-centered, insecure, priggish and rigid. You might almost imagine him to be a major politician in American politics today.

#79 Hans

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Posted 14 March 2007 - 05:34 PM

I have the impression that Weir writes chiefly of English monarchs, although I suppose Eleanor of Aquitaine was hardly English, and I'd think the Isabella must be the French Isabella who married Edward II, Hans?


That's correct.

#80 dirac

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Posted 14 March 2007 - 06:11 PM

Wait for the paperback.


I generally do in most cases as a general rule - there comes a time when one must think of shelf space - unless it's something I just have to get to, and even then there's the library. :(

#81 BW

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Posted 14 May 2007 - 06:24 PM

Ever since September 11th, I've been on a Middle East theme - except for a brief aside for Jane Eyre, which I loved. The highlights for me have been The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terror by Bob Baer, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart which was breath taking...and I'm now his second book - this one about his time in Iraq The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq as well as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 - and I heartily recommend them all for their illumination.

#82 dirac

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 01:54 PM

Ever since September 11th, I've been on a Middle East theme - except for a brief aside for Jane Eyre, which I loved. The highlights for me have been The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terror by Bob Baer, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart which was breath taking...and I'm now his second book - this one about his time in Iraq The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq as well as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 - and I heartily recommend them all for their illumination.


Thank you for the list, BW. I read some very favorable reviews of the Rory Stewart book.

#83 BW

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 03:02 PM

I fell in love, in a way, with his first book - the one in which he walks across Afghanistan. I'm not going to try to review it, but will just say that Mr. Stewart is a very well read fellow and writes beautifully. His second book - the one about his time in Iraq - is altogether different and just as compelling but in a very different way. They're both out in paperback. :flowers:

#84 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 15 May 2007 - 03:37 PM

At the moment, Mme. Campan's memoirs of Marie Antoinette.

#85 dirac

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Posted 16 May 2007 - 12:26 PM

At the moment, Mme. Campan's memoirs of Marie Antoinette.


Let us know what they're like. I haven't looked at anything about Marie Antoinette since I read the Stefan Zweig book as a kid.

#86 canbelto

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Posted 17 May 2007 - 11:20 AM

I loved Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine. In general I think Weir tends to be more matter of fact about her subjects, whereas Fraser identifies so strongly with them that it can come across as hagiography. I found this to be a problem in her biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette. These women were no doubt unfairly maligned during their lifetime, but they weren't saints and Frasier does almost canonize them.
What I'm reading? The biography of Mathilde Kschessinska at the moment. Fascinating stuff. What a resilient, amazing woman!

#87 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 17 May 2007 - 11:54 AM

At the moment, Mme. Campan's memoirs of Marie Antoinette.


Let us know what they're like. I haven't looked at anything about Marie Antoinette since I read the Stefan Zweig book as a kid.


Mme. Campan appears determined to right wrongs done to Marie Antoinette's reputation and is a very fond biographer. Nonetheless, she paints a picture not of a thoughtless or frivolous woman but an affectionate and sensible one. It's very interesting so far and there is a great deal of historical detail from an insider's point of view.

#88 papeetepatrick

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Posted 21 May 2007 - 04:56 PM

BW--I've been pushing Wright's 'The Looming Tower' for most of the year--it's brilliant and really gets you up on the Al Qaeda facts. Right now, just finishing, relatedly, Thomas Powers's 2002 collection Intelligence Wars, which is essays over several decades about the CIA, NSA, and all pertinent other intelligence agencies. If you haven't already read it, it's superb.

#89 dirac

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Posted 23 May 2007 - 02:11 PM

BW--I've been pushing Wright's 'The Looming Tower' for most of the year--it's brilliant and really gets you up on the Al Qaeda facts. Right now, just finishing, relatedly, Thomas Powers's 2002 collection Intelligence Wars, which is essays over several decades about the CIA, NSA, and all pertinent other intelligence agencies. If you haven't already read it, it's superb.


I haven’t read any of Powers’ books but he’s a regular reviewer for The New York Review of Books on intelligence books and related subjects, and I always like reading him.

I recently read Kim Philby’s memoirs along with those of his third wife, Eleanor. Philby’s book, written under the eye of the KGB, is not reliable in many respects but it’s good reading, he writes quite well. Graham Greene wrote the introduction. Eleanor’s book, Kim Philby: the Spy I Married has a lot of good tidbits about Philby’s defection and his early years in Russia. (She was not a politically sophisticated woman but then that was probably a plus for Philby.)

I just started Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise, about the lynching of Leo Frank, and it’s looking very good. Checked out Baronova’s autobiography from the library and have started that too, but I’ll post on that in another forum.

#90 vagansmom

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Posted 02 June 2007 - 02:45 PM

I have just finished reading Khaled Hosseini's (author of The Kite Runner) latest book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. The reviews I've read were mixed, but I really liked the book. It's very different from his first work, which I thought was masterful. This second book of his is also quite good, taking place from the 1970's to the present. It follows the lives of two women in Afhganistan. While I already knew something of the lives of women under the Taliban, this book gave me much of the background I needed to fully understand it.

Today, while proctoring a study hall, I read another book about a woman in an Islamic country, called In The Name of Honor, by Mukhtar Mai, as related to French author Mari-Therese Cuny, and translated into English by Linda Coverdale. Mukhtar Mai lives in Pakistan, in a rural village with rivaling clans. You may have heard of her. She is the woman whose official punishment for her younger brother's (a young 12 years old) supposed rape of a 27 year old woman of the upper clan was to be gang-raped in 2002 by a group of men from a higher tribe than hers. Her brother too was sexually attacked and savagely beaten. The truth was that the clan was trying to tyrannize her lower level clan over property disputes.

Instead of committing suicide after the attack, she fought back through the media. She has gone on to create a school in her village, originally for girls but now includes boys as well. She's traveled all over the world speaking about the dangers to every woman in Pakistan, that Islamic law and tribal law are two different things, and that tribal law is what prevails in the countryside. Mukhtar Mai is still in danger in her own village, but she has decided to risk death rather than move out of her country. Her mission is education for Pakistani girls and women.

Both of these books rounded out my understanding of the intricacies of laws - governmental, police, and tribal - in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. I ache for their women.


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