“Compulsively readable.” You see that quite frequently in front cover (or back cover, whichever) blurbs, but what exactly does that mean? And can it r...more“Compulsively readable.” You see that quite frequently in front cover (or back cover, whichever) blurbs, but what exactly does that mean? And can it really apply to so many books? Well, I can't answer for the second question, but as to the first, I would say the phrase describes something that can't be put down; a book that one keeps reading well into the wee hours of the night, perhaps even until the first rays of dawn peek through the windows. If the “compulsively readable” phrase gets tossed around too much until it loses some of its punch, in the case of Harold Schechter's The Mad Sculptor it is thoroughly deserved and 100% true.
After a while, the story begins to slow down, especially when it comes to the detailing of Robet Irwin's, The Mad Sculptor himself, many stints in mental institutions and his movements in between those stints. The whole thing becomes so tedious after a while, you begin to wonder exactly what kind of story Schechter is trying to tell. Especially when he includes the stories behind the many murders that occurred in the same Beekman Place neighborhood as where Irwin killed Veronica Gedeon. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed those side excursions, but to me all it did was muddle the direction of the book. When I reached the end, I wondered what exactly was the point. If Schechter wanted to explore the strange history of Beekman Place and why so many murders occurred in such a short period of time in the early part of the 20th century--was the neighborhood cursed? Did it have anything to do with the deprivations of the Great Depression? etc.--which I would've found interesting, then why focus so much on Irwin? If Schechter wanted to explore the psychopathy of Irwin, why did he peel off so many times to focus on those other murders, in which Irwin wasn't involved? It just came off as messy and uneven. Which is strange because I've read several of Schechter's other true crime books and have always found him to be both informative and entertaining, with a very readable narrative. Certainly nothing like what I encountered in The Mad Sculptor.(less)
I'll be honest. I have very little interest in the English monarchs of the Stuart period. I'm more interested in those that came before, the Tudors, a...moreI'll be honest. I have very little interest in the English monarchs of the Stuart period. I'm more interested in those that came before, the Tudors, and those that came after, the Georgians. The most I knew of Queen Anne was that she was the daughter of James II, and so got caught in the middle of the Catholic/Protestant tug-of-war; she was the sister of Queen Mary, whose husband, William of Orange, invaded the country and bloodlessly took the throne from James; she had multiple (and I do mean multiple) pregnancies, with most of them ending in stillbirths or miscarriages; and she gave her name to a style of furniture and architecture. That's about it. Well, after reading Anne Somerset's biography of Queen Anne, I can say I know more about the woman, but dislike her more and care about her even less than I did before.
According to the book's blurbs, Somerset's work is supposed to have redeemed Anne's name, yet I can't see how. Yes, Somerset definitely presents the most sympathetic view of the woman and, granted, Anne had a difficult life. Caught between a father and political advisers who each wanted to use her to their own ends, not to mention warring religious factions, and Anne's conflicting desires to be a good mother and wife while also being a just and effective queen, hers wasn't the easiest row to hoe. Especially since she lacked any sort of proper education and suffered from multiple health issues her entire life. Yet, to my mind, Anne's biggest handicap was her own personality. She was a possessive, neurotic, jealous, needy, paranoid mess of a woman, with an almost insane desire to control everyone in her life, including her friends, to the point of dictating who they could be friends with. Sadly, those traits dominate and overshadow any of Anne's other accomplishments, even her greatest one of creating a united Britain, making her a thoroughly despicable and unlikeable personage.
This is not a quick or light read, mostly because Somerset also gives in-depth coverage to the political maneuverings of the time, and I do mean in-depth, to the point where it felt like my eyes would cross from all the information flying at me. Lord Something-or-other plotted this, Duke Important-so-and-so objected and introduced such-and-such motion in Parliament, and so on. Don't get me wrong, knowledge of the politics of the time is important, but it just seemed to go on a bit too long. This dryness combined with Anne's petulant and unimaginative personality made for an occasionally dull and lifeless read.
Somerset is an absurdly thorough biographer, making this book probably the most trustworthy and authoritative portrayal of Anne. In the end, however, I also found it to be a rather dull and tedious portrayal as well, never lifting Anne above the historical footnote I always took her for. (less)
Nope, couldn't do it. After reading the enlightening The Borgias: The Hidden History, I can no longer respect another book in which the same old salacious stories about the Borgia family are repeated. Oh, Leonie Frieda qualifies a few of the worst rumors with a “perhaps” or “possibly not”, but only in a very reluctant way; all other stories about the Borgias, and Lucrezia specifically, are eagerly related in an almost cackling, “look at how awful these people were” sort of way. She does much the same thing when relating the history of Caterina Sforza. (Frieda repeats the most famous tale about Caterina, in which Caterina supposedly lifts up her skirts and shows her genitals to Orsi rebels while under siege at Ravaldino in response to the rebels threatening her son with death, shouting that she has the capability of making more sons. The origin of this tale is one Galeotto Manfredi, taken from a letter he wrote to Lorenzo de' Medici, but the funny thing is, no other witness to the Ravaldino siege included this vulgar story in their description of the proceedings. Even so, Niccolo Machiavelli decided to repeat this version of events in his Discourses because it suited the general opinion of Caterina's character.) This sort of sordid rumor-mongering only makes the more excellent book about Caterina, The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici, shine that much brighter.
The goal of the book, to describe the lives of eight of the most powerful and influential women of the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth century, was a grand one. It's execution, however, fell quite short of the mark. In trying to define these women by describing the world around them, their families, their lineage and history, the geography in which they lived and the events which shaped them, the women themselves disappeared into simplistic and roughly-sketched caricatures of who they truly were. Going into the book, I was already familiar with Lucrezia Borgia, Giulia Farnese, and Caterina Sforza, thanks to the more-comprehensive and better-written books I mentioned above, but had less familiarity with Lucrezia Tornabuoni, a savvy and influential politician, Clarice Orsini, the wife of Lorenzo de' Medici who was overshadowed by her mother-in-law Lucrezia Tonabuoni, Isabella and Beatrice d'Este, sisters, rivals, and fashion plates as well as cultural and political icons, and Isabella d'Aragona, the unhappy and unfortunate Duchess of Milan. Sadly, I can't say I'm any more familiar with them now than I was before reading the book as the biographies of these women were so broadly-drawn as to be nearly useless; I think I could've learned as much from Wikipedia. Not to mention, to judge by her treatment of Lucrezia Borgia and Caterina Sforza, I have a hard time believing that the histories of the other women in this book were objectively written; I doubted and took with a grain of salt nearly every sentence I read. From what I can see, there has been no new research done to write this book--it's simply a rehash of what other chroniclers have written over the centuries with no attempt to either verify or refute any of the information given by those sources--and while I can say that the writing itself is very engaging and lively (which is why I tacked on that half star to the rating), I can't say that I'm impressed with what the writing is saying.
In the end, I found the overall mocking, gossipy, biased tone to be extremely off-putting and I wouldn't recommend this book to any serious student of history, nor would I recommend it as an introductory text to the era as I believe it would do more harm than good and simply continue to spread misinformation.(less)
Before going into the book, I was well aware of the stories about the Borgia family. I've been interested in their history for years and have always b...moreBefore going into the book, I was well aware of the stories about the Borgia family. I've been interested in their history for years and have always been an ardent Lucrezia defender, having decided early on that the stories of her being a murderer, a poisoner, the most dangerous woman in Italy were utterly false. However, I've never doubted any of the stories about the rest of her family; after all, they've been repeated, over and over ad nauseum, for centuries, ever since Pope Alexander VI took the papal throne. So any book that claims to shed new light on an old story is of immediate interest to me. And, boy, was I blown away by this book! I will never be able to watch the Showtime original series The Borgias or read any other book (fiction or not) which features the Borgias the same way again.
In alternating chapters, Meyer tells the story of the Borgia family from their beginnings, when the very first Borja came out of Spain and made it good in Italy, interspersed with the history of the times, the places, and the people involved with this ever-changing pageantry. Yes, that's right, the Borgias or, as they're more properly known, the Borja-Lanzol family, were Spaniards, going part of the way to explain the wealth of stories about them. After all, foreigners, any foreigners, in Rome were treated as suspect. Therefore anything said about the Borgias, whether it concerned adultery, incest, fratricide, espionage, murder, or anything in between, was easily believed and easily exaggerated. However, as Meyer very rationally and thoroughly points out, most if not all of these tales are not only false, there's no way they could've ever been true. When all the misconceptions are cleared up, what we get is a new, fresh take on the history of the Borgias, one which illuminates their (yes) faults, but also their virtues, of which they did have a few. The end result is quite refreshing.
Meyer is not the first apologist (a word, Meyer points out, that doesn't mean that one is apologizing for someone's actions but is instead defending a position) to try and clear up the Borgia history. The first book to do so was written by the Italian Andrea Leonetti in an 1880 work entitled Papa Alessandro VI, in which Leonetti brought up the question of whether the opinion the world had held of Alexander for nearly four hundred years might, in fact, be wrong. Sadly, though the book drew some praise, it was never translated from the Italian and sank into oblivion. The next to try was Peter De Roo. In 1924 he published his massive Materials for A History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Times, five volumes of documents found in archives across Europe, from Spain to Vienna, as well as in a number of Italian depositories, gathered over 30 years. Exhaustive in its scope, De Roo's work lays out conclusions which are completely at odds with nearly every aspect of the Borgia myth. Though some historians have referenced De Roo, those references are often rare, brief, and oblique, with De Roo's work often only noted, never commented upon. Sadly, De Roo never got to use his Materials to write a definitive biography of Alexander as he died less than two years after Materials was published. Then came Orestes Ferrara's The Borgia Pope in 1942, published first in Italian and then in English. As with its predecessors, it's been largely ignored and certainly had no impact on the immutable Borgia myth.
Despite the wealth of evidence proving the opposite of nearly every story told about the Borgias, why, then, do people keep repeating the same old tales? Simply put, the world likes their Borgias to be nasty, despicable, and rotten to the core, able to keep company with Caligula, Nero, Erzebet Bathory, Hitler, and others in the Cabal of Evil. No one wants to hear the truth when the lies are so much more entertaining and exciting.
Written in a scholarly yet still approachable voice, The Borgias: The Hidden History explodes the myth of the Borgias and should set the world on fire. Whether it will or not, whether it will be embraced and hailed or rejected and ridiculed, remains to be seen. For those who are unfamiliar with the Borgia family, or have gotten all they know from the TV show, this is the book of all books to read in order to clear up any misconceptions. Actually, it doesn't matter how familiar you are with the Borgia family, this is still the book of all books to read, if you're willing to look at an old story with new eyes.(less)
Evelyn Nesbit. Look at her. No wonder men desired her and women wanted to be her. She was not only the first "It" girl, she was the template...more3.5 stars
Evelyn Nesbit. Look at her. No wonder men desired her and women wanted to be her. She was not only the first "It" girl, she was the template for the modern woman. Take away the trappings and her face could grace the covers of today's tabloids and magazines.
Breezy, gossipy, intimate, and casual, American Eve tells the tragic and riveting tale of America's first pin-up girl, Evelyn Nesbit – artist's model, showgirl, Gibson Girl – her involvement with Stanford White, literally the architect of New York City, and Harry K. Thaw, nouveau riche and totally off his rocker. This twisted triangle of lust and mania was called “The Crime of the Century” for a reason: Not only did its participants become rallying points for social reform, either as villains or heroes, the story behind the drama – inside the courtroom and out – fueled the explosion of yellow journalism and America's obsession with celebrity, sex, beauty, and scandal.
The ten years Uruburu put into this book shows, as the reader is immersed in the hedonistic excesses and rampant poverty of the Gilded Age with details pulled from period newspaper articles, personal letters, postcards, as well as autobiographies written by Evelyn Nesbit and Harry K. Thaw. However, Uruburu is not an historian, but an English professor, which shows: occasionally those details can become a bit overwhelming and her prose has a tendency to be flowery and overly metaphorical; not to mention, at times, Uruburu comes up with quite the tangled sentence, requiring mental convolutions to straighten out its meaning. However, she does have a knack for channeling the lingo of the the era in such phrases as “He went into a purple frenzy...” or “...a particularly dull way to end an otherwise spiffy evening.” She also does a fine job of letting the story tell itself; while Uruburu is obviously on Evelyn's side (and, really, once you get to know her, who wouldn't be?), she doesn't make Evelyn out to be an innocent angel. That said, Evelyn's is the most prevalent voice, coming to us down the years through her two autobiographies, though Uruburu does manage to give us a glimpse into the minds of the other two big players in the story, Stanford White and Harry K. Thaw (whose autobiography Uruburu also relied on, though with more grains of salt than Evelyn's, considering the rather twisted mind from which the book came). All in all, it's a well-researched tome and it's certainly the first to truly bring to life, that I know of, all of Evelyn's story. However, while I'm not the expert on Evelyn Nesbit Uruburu claims to be, I did notice a couple of inconsistencies: When Evelyn meets Jack Barrymore, Uruburu puts him at being 21-years-old at the time. However, from all the sources I've checked, even official Barrymore sources, Jack was 19 when he first met Evelyn, having been born in 1882 to Evelyn's 1884. Also, I thought it was weird that Uruburu wrote that Evelyn was not quite five feet tall, yet, once again, all the sources I've looked at place her at being around 5' 3” tall. Small things and I could be wrong about them, but they still stuck out for me.
What the reader notices, though, is that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The story of Evelyn, her rise and fall, the notoriety of her involvement with Stanford White and the fallout from the trial mimics the trajectory of so many starlets who came after Evelyn, right up to Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and other “It” girls who have hypnotized the masses, sometimes with nothing more substantial than the willingness to be in the spotlight, and fallen from their pedestals when it was revealed they had feet of clay. While American Eve may not be what you might call a substantial history, it is a revelational one, giving us a glimpse into the creation of cult of celebrity and, in a way, the loss of innocence. Once the seamy underbelly of their lives of decadence and debauchery was revealed, which the scions of the American power landscape tried to desperately to keep hidden for so many years, the blinders fell away; whether they liked it or not, the American public saw these men, these former idols, for the utterly human and utterly fallible beings they were. And nothing would ever be the same again.
Like other popular history books, the tone of Royal Pains is lively and flippant, with a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' kind of intimacy, as though the pr...moreLike other popular history books, the tone of Royal Pains is lively and flippant, with a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' kind of intimacy, as though the profiles it contains are bits of juicy gossip heard at the latest coffee klatsch. Though I understand why this kind of convivial narration is used--coupled with the fairly sensationalist subject matter, it helps draw in a wider audience and keep them reading, most likely with the idea that they'll stay unaware of the fact they're taking in and enjoying history--the casual tone occasionally becomes a bit too much so, taking away from the drama and impact of a particular tale. And while most of the personages profiled by the book fit into one of the categories given by the subtitle of A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, there's one that has had the description "royal pain" thrust upon him without actually having done anything to warrant that label. Pauline Bonaparte and Princess Margaret? Definitely brats. Vlad the Impaler and Ivan IV? Most certainly brutes, of the highest order. King John and Elizabeth Bathory? Yup, bad seeds. Very bad seeds. However, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale wasn't particularly brutish, bratty, and while he was somewhat intellectually diffident and free with his sexual favors (what male member of the royal family wasn't?), I certainly wouldn't characterize him as a bad seed. He's included for the mere fact that, decades after his birth, someone decided that he was Jack the Ripper and, despite the fact that royal diaries and itineraries clearly place "Eddy" away from Whitechapel when each crime was committed, stuck to that story, creating a distorted mythos which spread and took on new dimensions of horror and depravity each time a new "researcher" got their hands on it. Carroll states at the end of Prince Albert's entry that it's the mere fact of this continued infamy which classifies him as a royal pain. It seems to me, with the wealth of other historical royal pains out there, that Carroll could have featured one who was an actual brat, brute, or bad seed rather than someone as hapless as Prince Albert.
That said, I still enjoyed reading Royal Pains. Not because I'm particularly enriched; usually I don't discover anything about these people I don't already know. (I think the only new information I got came in the entries for Pauline Bonaparte and Archduke Rudolf of Austria.) However, when written well (and despite my comments about the casual tone of the book, Royal Pains is well-written), popular history books can be quite entertaining, as this one was, and a pleasant way to while away the hours.
Raw, personal and eye-opening, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is not your typical celebrity tell-all, in which the star whines and blames those around...moreRaw, personal and eye-opening, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is not your typical celebrity tell-all, in which the star whines and blames those around him/her for his/her current problems. Instead, Rob Lowe simply states "That's the way things were and this was how I handled them. It wasn't smart, but, hey, I didn't know any better." Although, in Rob's case, he would've been perfectly justified in whining a bit, having suffered through a childhood torn apart by divorce, leaving him with a father who was absent from his life most of the time and a mother who, well, to put it nicely, was a flake. A hypochondriac flake who couldn't be bothered to interact with her sons and instead chased fad after fad and man after man. Rob is very generous in ascribing his mother's hands-off behavior to a desire to see him succeed on his own and not the neglect it truly was. Whatever the case, though, his independent childhood served him well (for the most part), powering his drive to succeed which fueled his early, stellar career, a career that looked at though it could only go up...until it imploded in the lat 80's, making him a walking punchline for a time. Yet even in the face of an event which would've totally devastated any other actor, Lowe maintained his ferocious work ethic and sense of humor, allowing him to rise above the tabloid tattle and rebuild his career.
Lowe entered Hollywood during the third Golden Age, when mavericks and innovators such as Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg were the new kids on the block, disrupting the old order and creating their own. As such, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is very much like a typical celeb autobiography in that many famous names are dropped throughout the book. However, and this is again where Lowe's books differs, the name-dropping is never gratuitous. Each person mentioned always played a key role in Lowe's career and it's clear Lowe not only admires his famous friends and acquaintances, even his rivals, he never has a bad word to say about any of them. Which makes Rob Lowe a rarity in Hollywood, an actual gentleman who would rather slog through the mud to reach his goal than sling it around to block anyone else's path.
Granted, you must always take a celebrity's word with a grain of salt. However, Lowe's book comes across as refreshingly honest and un-fake, making it highly readable and immensely enjoyable.(less)
How is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control...moreHow is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control of the papal fort of Castel Sant'Angelo and held it, with some skillfully smuggled-in soldiers, for eleven days in order to defend her family's rights. A woman who went toe to toe, figuratively speaking, with one of the most brilliant wits of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli, and not only won but made Machiavelli look like an incompetent fool. A woman who, when the walls of her beloved castle Ravaldino were finally breached by the artillery of Cesare Borgia's army, took up a sword and waded into that breach and for two hours was the equal of any man, wielding her sword against the enemy as she fought side by side with her men. And when one of those men betrayed her and sold her out to the enemy; when she's captured by Cesare, held prisoner by him for months as he brutally rapes, torments, and terrorizes her; when she's taken back to Rome and thrown into a deep, dank cell in the same Castel Sant'Angelo she'd so bravely commandeered sixteen years earlier, her spirit could not be broken and she still managed to be defiant, even down to planning a daring escape from the inescapable papal fort. The story of Caterina Riario Sforza Medici, larger-than-life, full of colorful characters and daring exploits, should be as well known to any schoolchild as that of Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia and fully belongs in the pantheon of fabulous warrior women.
Elizabeth Lev does a wonderful job of taking some of the tarnish off Caterina's reputation, who during her lifetime and beyond has been vilified, judged as a witch, a whore, a virago (which, initially, was a good thing, meaning a woman of masculine spirit, from the Latin vir, man; eventually virago began to take on shadings of a negative nature, until it's become the word we know now, for an abusive and hostile woman, a woman with no shame). So much of the contemporary writings were lost, so it's hard to know exactly what took place when, but it's also easy to read between the lines of contemporary history-takers (all of them men and all of them at one time either infatuated with Caterina or repelled by her, thus coloring every word they wrote about her) and find a happy medium of truth to the most harsh of rumors and tales spread about concerning Caterina's actions. Like many other powerful, fierce and willful women in an era when women, even those in positions of power (especially those in positions of power) were supposed to be meek, mild and led by the nose by the nearest and most powerful male, Caterina's actions inspired a sort of horrified fascination in the populace and, when her actions finally exceeded the bounds of propriety, they inspired condemnation and fear. There's no way of clearing up every rumor concerning Caterina's actions, especially the more heinous ones ascribed to her (although Lev does a great job of presenting fair arguments as to why or why not Caterina couldn't/wouldn't have taken such an action), but Elizabeth Lev manages to open the curtain and shed quite a bit of light onto this extraordinary life.
As for the book itself, this is no dry dissertation concerning only names and dates, but neither is it history-lite. It strikes the right balance between information and information-overload. The narration moves along at a brisk clip and the situations are well-drawn, fully placing you, the reader, into the midst of the action on the page. There is a map provided at the beginning of the book, which helps you navigate the many Italian city-states, provinces and shifting allegiances which populate the book. Seeing as my copy is an ARC, I don't know what the publisher has in store for final publication, but I'd guess, or at least I'm hoping, they'll place some photo inserts of some of the places mentioned in the book, as well as perhaps a facsimile of some of the artwork the author describes. Such an insert would be a welcome visual aid; however, even without such an aid, the reader still gets a sense of time and place from the descriptions provided by the author. Photos would only be a bonus.
Caterina Sforza managed to straddle the quicksands which are Italian politics and not only survive but thrive, navigating political morasses with a sharp wit and a savvy mind. She endured a tedious first marriage to a corrupt and inept buffoon who only brought shame to the family name; entered into a secret, second marriage for love, which shocked the Renaissance world, and once again chose her own husband for her third, brief and sadly tragic, marriage. During her short, but ultimately brilliant life, Caterina showed herself to be a fearless ruler, a woman with an iron will and a fierce devotion to her children, an ingenious tactician and an inspiration to an entire continent. She truly was the Tigress of Forli.(less)
A biography...of sorts, this is collection of random thoughts and ideas from the television star. Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just some...moreA biography...of sorts, this is collection of random thoughts and ideas from the television star. Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just some folksy ramblings dusted with a hint of Hollywood glamour. Entertaining and a quick read, you don't get a whole view of who Betty White is (or was, considering the publication date), but you do get a big helping of her wit and humor.(less)
Exhaustively researched and meticulously detailed, this is no casual, day-at-the-beach read. Yet, despite the depth of knowledge presented in this vol...moreExhaustively researched and meticulously detailed, this is no casual, day-at-the-beach read. Yet, despite the depth of knowledge presented in this volume, neither is it a scholarly read, dry and dusty and suited only for those with a Ph.D. under their belt.
This book presents us with the closest and most accurate portrait of a queen who has gone down in history more for the misdeeds attributed to her than for the actual exploits she achieved. However, there is one caveat: This is not an intimate portrait of Queen Cleopatra VII (who wasn't actually VII, more like X or more, but because of her convoluted and labyrinthine past as a Ptolomy, it was inevitable that someone, somewhere, lost count). In fact, this isn't even an biography of Cleopatra, or at least not her alone. It's also a biography of the Ptolomies and Alexandria, of Caesar and Pompey and Rome; of Marc Antony, Herod, Octavian and Octavia. Through these lives did Cleopatra orbit, often changing the course of these satellites through her actions and decisions. Yet, despite her influence, very little remains of the real Cleopatra. What histories and biographies we have from her contemporaries were written by those antagonistic towards her or, worse still, those same snippets embellished upon, painting Cleopatra in shades of harlot and seductress, centuries after her life and death. We have nothing but literally a couple of words written in Cleopatra's own hand or voice; nothing which could shed light on her innermost thoughts, her daily routines, her troubles and doubts, her triumphs and pleasures.
As such, Cleopatra: A Life is what I'd call a forensic biography. Schiff builds up a vibrant and detailed account of the lives and lands which created and revolved around Cleopatra, in something like a reverse painting. As these rich details pile up, what's left is a Cleopatra-shaped hole, delineating her movements in progressively smaller and smaller orbits, until what we have left is the most likely path she took through the course of events. Thus while we may not have the words from Cleopatra's mouth or know exactly what movements she took during certain points of crisis, using that wealth of knowledge she built up concerning the times in which Cleopatra lived, Schiff is able to plot out the most logical course of action through which the Egyptian queen piloted. Doing so also allows Schiff to balance out the knowledge most commonly held about Cleopatra, from the histories of Plutarch, Dio, Cicero and Josephus, among others, pitting each histrionic account against each other until something approximating the actual truth comes out. Thus, while Schiff never definitively states that Cleopatra couldn't have done something as written by one of the many chroniclers of the day, she also presents a more logical interpretation of the queen's actions, based on logic rather than biased vitriol.
I can't say this book is "entertaining" in the sense of a I-can't-put-it-down blockbuster. However, it's exquisitely written, and while a reader can occasionally get bogged down by the minutiae, that's not necessarily the fault of the writer. Rather it's merely a consequence of trying to pin down and capture the essence of such a bountiful, decadent, intricate, explosive era in history.(less)
What a horribly, intricately detailed swamp of a book! After wading through the disgustingly delicious story of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Siengalt-...moreWhat a horribly, intricately detailed swamp of a book! After wading through the disgustingly delicious story of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Siengalt--gambler, debaucher, pervert, swindler, rapist, pedophile, con man--I feel as though I need a shower...or perhaps a series of extra-strength antiobiotics.
Despite the fact that this is a man whom no one should hold up as a example to aspire to, it was fascinating to read about the many fortuitous situations Casanova managed to eel himself into--and even more fascinating to discover how he extricated himself from those situations when they (inevitably) turned sour. He had skills at which even Houdini would've marveled. And even though he was not a good man--he could become petty, jealous, violent, and cruel on a whim--he had the admirable characteristic of actually listening to the women he wooed, bolstering their esteem and seeing their value as a person. Granted, this was merely to get underneath their petticoats, but he was the first to really treat his lovers as people, not objects.
This is definitely a book to be read in small bites, as it can become overwhelming with the amount of detail provided. For a man who has become more myth than reality, whose true exploits and character have become obscured by the mists of romanticizing authors and glamorizing moviemakers, Judith Summers has done a fantastic job of bringing the real Casanova to life, warts (and I do mean warts--full-blown toad warts) and all.
I think it should be noted that this is more of a speculative biography than strict historical recounting. The author inserts thoughts and actions which, had Casanova himself been there to witness them, he would've never put in his memoirs, nor would any other biographer, as they are merely narrative devices. However, personally, I don't mind this kind of speculation; it helps move the story along and keeps the book from being a dry-as-dust life history with as much readability as the latest set of tax laws. We can be sure that the people inhabiting Casanova's life were quite colorful, so it doesn't seem inappropriate for the author to ascribe certain behaviors to these personages in private moments which were never meant to be recorded for posterity.(less)