I had read The Romanovs (about the family of Tsar Nicholas II) and enjoyed that history. This was a very similar recounting of the life and times of CI had read The Romanovs (about the family of Tsar Nicholas II) and enjoyed that history. This was a very similar recounting of the life and times of Catherine the Great, of the 18th century. The first half of the book presented the early life of Sophia-cum-Catherine from a summary of her parents' origins in Prussia and how she and her also German husband Peter became the heirs to the Romanov throne.
After she eventually becomes Empress of Russia, the second part moves through different aspects of her life and her impact on Russia and Europe, each topic told more or less chronologically. Topics include the evolution of her Enlightenment politics (very interesting chapter on her creation, and failure, of a Legislative Council to write a new legal code for Russia, which if it had succeeded might have freed the serfs 100 years earlier than 1861), her friendships with French philosophers, wars with Prussia and Turkey and the quest for access to the Crimean peninsula, her relationship with her son Paul, her "favorites" (i.e. husband and lovers -- she was monogamous at any given time, though), art, culture, architecture, and other topics I'm sure I'm omitting.
Since the first half of the book was mainly chronological, the second part was kind of tricky to keep straight, as each section sort of started back at 1762 (her coronation) and worked through the end of her reign regarding that topic. Massie did a pretty good job of balancing the repetition of facts/milestones from previous chapters: not too much redundancy, but enough to help you make those connections.
In addition to straight biographical details about Catherine and her immediate circle of characters, Massie also devotes several additional chapters to topics relevant to the late 18th century, well beyond the first-degree connection to Catherine herself. There were chapters on other monarchical rules in Europe, the French Revolution, and the French philosophers Voltaire and Diderot, with whom she did correspond personally for years.
Generally, Massie kept to the facts, with a distinct, but not overbearing, favorable bias showing his admiration for her as a European leader. However, one time, in the last 1-2 chapters he lets in a very personal and opinionated statement (literally, one sentence) which was so different from the tone of the rest of this tome, that it certainly must have been missed by the editor.
********************** Now, a review of the audiobook recording:
What I liked - The reader (Mark Deakins) did an excellent job changing voices when reading primary source material, including affecting accents (probably somewhat caricatured) based on the origins of the source. His feminine voices were distinctly feminine without sounding contrived.
What I didn't like - Mispronunciations of Russian names and placed. I actually borrowed the text ebook from the library to look at some of the names and places he was reading because the pronunciation was inconsistent throughout the book. However, he was extremely consistent in MISPRONOUNCING Tsarskoe Selo. While many of the mispronunciations were minor, in either placing the accent on the wrong syllable or succumbing to westernized standard spellings (and therefore mispronunciations) of Fedorov vs Fyodorov, I can't forgive the absolute and total butchering of Tsarskoe Selo. It was unrecognizable. So unrecognizable that I can't even reproduce it phonetically here. I wouldn't have know what he was talking about except for my existing knowledge of the Russian imperial estates around St. Petersburg.
If you are a Russian speaker, do not listen to this audio recording unless you are a forgiving listener. Sorry....more
I always feel that I should give a review of those books that I rate extremely high or low. However, having read several of the other positive reviewsI always feel that I should give a review of those books that I rate extremely high or low. However, having read several of the other positive reviews of this book, I can't think of anything really of substance to add.
For my friends, fellow parents and educators, I will add this observation: I, of course, "studied" the Civil War in elementary school and again in high school. I retained almost nothing from either of those efforts other than a few key facts (North vs. South, 1860s, slavery, and surprisingly I did remember that Grant eventually waged a war of attrition). But I really do not believe that is the fault of my teachers. What I have come to realize is that history really is not interesting to pre-adults, for the most part, because they have so very little context for understanding its events let alone its implications. They have not been through political elections nor have they discussed the raging controversial national issue. As an adult now, the intrigue and debate of politics and the personal ambitions and classism of politicians is something that I understand so much better, and that understanding provides context for my reading of histories.
And like any good history, this book revealed many more questions and topics of interest that were outside of its scope. I may have to go read more about presidents, and social change, and 19th century classism, and so on.
I listened to this book during my commute for a little over a month. I highly recommend the audio version as the narration brings in pacing and intonation which helps to keep the sometimes pithy quotes engaging....more