Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Year: 2010
Read: March 2017
Where It Came From:Library e-Audiobook
Genre: Non-fiction-biography
Rating: 4 Strands of Pearls

I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book made me cry. Well, I'm sure there are actually lots of tear-jerking and upsetting non-fiction books out there, so let me amend that: I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book about the ancient world, with principal characters more myth than human to modern eyes, made me cry. I first tried to read this book in 2013 (thanks, Goodreads, for allowing me to compulsively keep track of my reading habits!), but I just couldn't get into it. Earlier this month I felt inspired to try again, this time with the audio version, and that did the trick (thanks as always to Susan, who turned me on to the merits of nonfiction in audiobook form). It held my ("rapt" might be an appropriate word here) attention as I listened to it while getting ready in the mornings and on my commute for the last couple weeks. I started listening on International Women's Day, which while not specifically planned, turned out to be apt.

A few thoughts. This book laid open some gaping, heretofore unknown failures in my education. Number one, and one that fits into the category of gape-mouthed shock and mind-blowing world-shifting (ask me about Marie Antoinette and the "let them eat cake" thing or coconut milk vs. coconut water someday if you're interested in more from this same odd subgenre for me)--Cleopatra VII (who was actually VI, but that's not the shocker here), was not actually Egyptian! She, and her entire Ptolemaic dynasty, was of Macedonian Greek descent. They ruled over Egypt and its people, but they and their city of Alexandria were a product of Hellenistic culture (though certainly with some merging and mingling with culturally Egyptian things). Is this common knowledge?? I have spent my entire life (with the exception of a note I remember from a Royal Diaries book I read in junior high mentioning that Cleopatra could have possibly been blonde) under the impression that Cleopatra was ethnically and culturally Egyptian in the way that Ramses and Nefertiti and all those other pharaohs that fascinated me as a child were.

Number two, the more this book went on, the more I realized how little I actually knew of the Caesar/Cleopatra/Marc Antony story. Culturally, it's something probably most everyone is aware of in some way, but I didn't realize how amorphous a blob my understanding of it was, punctuated by random markers (often erroneous, I now know) like "asp" and "love triangle" and "rolled up in a carpet." My weird, literature- and pop culture-influenced understanding of the tale involved a screwed-up timeline, confused relationships, unclear motives, and gaping holes. This book helped straighten out, clarify, and fill in, but only to a certain extent. The broad strokes are there, details too, to an extent, but a great many details are still lost.

And that is in no way the fault of the book. As an adage we all know, used near to the point of cliché, history is written by the victors. And the victors in this case were Octavian, Rome, and a culture supremely uncomfortable with powerful women. The book discusses the fact that there are no contemporaneous accounts of Cleopatra, nothing that remains of her own voice, so we are left to piece together a picture of her based on the accounts of the men telling her story after the fact, and to examine their bias for hints as to how their version of events may be skewed. It’s hard for anyone to get a picture of Cleopatra as she actually was, as throughout history and the many versions of her story, it is easier for the writers (the patriarchy?) to attribute her success to beauty rather than intelligence, to feminine wiles rather than cleverness, to subterfuge rather than strategy, to reduce her power to exoticism and sex. As the author notes in the book, when men do it, it's called strategizing, but when women do it, it's called scheming. It's frustrating, like looking at her through the surface of a pond, able to make out the general shape, but with the details obscured by the shifting surface. In the end, we're left with a picture of Cleopatra as an imperfect, fallible human, but certainly an intelligent, driven, and strong woman, making a stand for her country, her people, and herself, in a masculine world.

I put off finishing this book for a day or two, because I was overcome with that feeling when you know the original story well enough (even considering my aforementioned flawed and incomplete knowledge of said original story) to know that the shit is about to irreparably hit the fan. In the end my tears weren't as much for the tragic end to the Antony/Cleopatra relationship (moving without being overly sentimental here), as they were for the underdogs who had lost, and the woman who had clashed with all Roman expectations of females, and tried to prevent the sun from setting on her land, people, and dynasty. I am left with a hunger for details and questions that can never be answered about these people and their time, and so for the ravages of passing centuries and of those who write the histories, I had some tears, too.

Add this one to the "required feminist reading" list.

*As ever, wherever our copies of the books we read come from, our reviews remain uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Whatchoo reading?

Hello, bookworms and moths! I can’t believe February is almost over. Though I don’t think I’ll be going full-blown review on any of the books I’ve been reading in January and February, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about them, the ones I’m in the middle of right now, and a couple I’m looking forward to verrrrrry soon. Allons-y!

Things I’ve Been Reading

  • Gemina, by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. This second entry in the Illuminae Files series did not disappoint. In fact, I think I liked this one even more than the first one! I love the way the format of these books continues to push boundaries—it often reminds me of Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrammes (thanks, college French!). These books are action-packed like the best summer movies, but with characterization and a sort of overarching mythology that those summer tentpoles often lack. Romance is a component thread of these books, but it is definitely secondary to the rollicking plot. For these books, I find that that is the perfect balance. There was also a perfect balance of plot twists that I figured out, and ones that I didn't see coming—enough to make you feel smart, but still have the fun of being surprised. Can't wait for book three.
  • P.S. I Like You, by Kasie West. I got this book for S for Christmas because I thought it sounded cute, and then decided I had probably better read it myself to be sure. And how often do you a find a YA that takes place in Phoenix?? After a rough, choppy start (think oddly disjointed sentence flow, stilted dialogue, me thinking, "Grrr, I was an Arizona high schooler and my experience was nothing like this!"), some sort of unseen transition occurred and the dialogue became funny, the characters became real, the romance gave me butterflies, and I was utterly charmed. Enough so that I passed that late night reading point of no return and had to finish the book before finally going to bed around 2 a.m. A quick, cute, fun read! I’ll definitely be looking for more Kasie West novels.
  • Ever the Hunted, by Erin Summerill. Though this book has an absolutely stunning cover design (and I am a sucker for cover design!), my overall feeling about the story inside the covers was a resounding “meh.” I was tentatively interested and engaged in the beginning (world-building concerns were primarily what kept me from being fully interested and engaged), and then halfway through I got bored. The romance, which had an interesting hook and tension to start with, was resolved too quickly for me. Though the plot kept a tidy pace, it still somehow managed to feel mired and slow to me. The plot development on the last page was intriguing, but probably not enough to motivate me to pick up the next book when it comes out.
  • Snow White: A Graphic Novel, by Matt Phelan. I loved the aesthetic and storytelling of this graphic novel. Easy to read in one sitting, it situates the traditional Snow White story in New York in the 1920s and the Great Depression. Samantha White (her mother calls her “Snow”) lives in NYC, and after her mother dies when she is young, her businessman father remarries a star performer of the Follies—enter evil stepmother! You know how the story goes from there. I love the twists that evoke the original fairytale while adjusting it to fit in the new time period. A ticker tape stands in for the magic mirror, seven street urchins remind the reader of dwarves in a forest, and a detective investigating the case of a mysteriously sleeping girl found in the display window of a department store makes for a modern prince charming. There are few words in the graphic novel, but the expressive art clearly tells the tale.
  • The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. This Canterbury Tales-esque story follows three unique young people and one very special dog in France in the 1240s—Jeanne, a peasant girl on the run from the authorities who experiences prophetic visions; Jacob, a Jewish boy with mysterious healing powers who has escaped the hate-fueled burning of his village; William, an unusual oblate endowed with colossal strength; and Gwenforte, Jeanne’s beloved greyhound, long dead and yet somehow returned to her. Though the storytelling is fast-paced, it somehow still manages to be a slow burner, with a powerful payoff. Also, it's really funny. I mean, there’s a farting dragon! The humor is definitely a hallmark of the story, but it also depicts people in all their complexity, and its ruminations on prejudice and tolerance are especially important. It could also serve as a master class on how to use modern speech in a historical (or fantasy) setting without it sounding jarring, inappropriate, or false. Highly recommended!


Things I’m Currently Reading

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. As I continue my incursions into the Bill Bryson audiobook realm, I recently started this one, wherein BB takes on science, the universe, and everything! Completely fascinating, and makes me want to learn more about all the topics he covers. His wit and his knack for finding and relating bizarre footnotes to history delight, as ever.
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. This one is hitting all the right fairytale buttons for me. I adore Fyrian the Perfectly Tiny Dragon (he’s prone to crying), and I’m not even 100 pages in. But, I had to take a break from this one so I could starting reading…
  • A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab. AHHHHHHHAGHAIOHGALIFBHALKHGHLGIagahgipuahg’gauug GO AWAY I’M READING


Things I’m Looking Forward to Reading

  • Rat Queens #1, by Kurtis Wiebe and Owen Gieni. Rat Queens is back with Image Comics and a new artist (astute blog readers and comics fans might recognize his name from Manifest Destiny)! It looks like they’ll be doing a kind of reboot of the series, which honestly I’m down with since, storywise, the last issues before all the artist kerfuffle and hiatus went down were kind of going in a weird direction. I’m hoping it’s fun and awesome and helps me forget all the strangeness that went on with the artists and story. Out on March 1st, 2017.
  • The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. You can click on the picture to read the blurb—it sounds amazing, and has been getting some great reviews. I don’t think I’ve read a Scalzi novel I didn’t like, and this one sounds especially cool. Can’t wait to get my hands on it! Too much to hope he’ll be promoting it at Phoenix Comicon this year? Out on March 21st, 2017.


Well, that’s it from me this month. What’s been on your TBR? What are you looking forward to reading next? Let us know in the comments!

**All books purchased or borrowed from the library. An e-ARC of Ever the Hunted was received from the publisher via NetGalley, but this short review is based on my reading of a finished copy. As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Some of My Favorites From 2016

2017 may be well and truly underway by now, but since it’s been a while since I last posted, I thought I’d take a moment to look back on some of my favorite reads from last year.

New Favorite Series: The Amory Ames books, by Ashley Weaver
These books are so much fun. Amory Ames, a well-to-do uppercrust-y British lady in the ‘20s-’30s, solves murder mysteries and contends with her flirtatious and flighty husband, Milo. Though by the third book the romantic tension that came from her estrangement from her husband has been mostly resolved, the mysteries are interesting enough and her and Milo’s relationship sweet enough that I stuck around. Three books out so far, and I can’t wait for more! Thanks to Susan for turning me on to this series!

Best Non-Fiction Book: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister
Everyone should read this book, regardless of their sex, but especially, DEFINITELY if you are female. It doesn’t matter whether you are single or attached, gay or straight (this is starting to ring a bell—I feel like I’ve written this for the blog before), rich or poor—it’s a book about feminism and what it’s like to be a woman in the world, what it’s BEEN like to be a woman in the world since time immemorial. It seems to go without saying in our current political climate that there are those who feel threatened by the titular “rise of an independent nation” of females, and this book will empower you to fight back.

Best Graphic Novels of the Year: Too Many to List, Nearly
I read a *lot* of graphic novels last year, and loved most of them. I’ll try to limit myself to one line about each that I’m featuring here.
• Lumberjanes: Female friendship and the fun adventures of summer camp, with a delightful dose of the supernatural and humor added to the mix.
• Bitch Planet: Just what the doctor ordered for reading on 11/09/2016. That was probably the only day in my life when I have seriously (and I mean seriously) considered getting a tattoo, and it was going to say “non-compliant.”
• Paper Girls: More female friendship + supernatural, but with more of a sci-fi bent and some good old fashioned ‘80s fun. It’s kooky! It’s crazy! I loved it! (Also, it seems to live in the same ballpark of my brain as Stranger Things, for what it’s worth.)
• Monstress: Scary/sad/icky-at-times ruminations on war in a fantasy world, but with truly stunning art and an ever-deepening world that continues to draw me in. It’s kinda like a blend of manga and American comic traditions, and the result is completely unique.
• Rat Queens: I just discovered this series in 2016, and I really, really love it. The female friendships (which seems to be a theme for my 2016 graphic novel readings) are hilariously real, and the good-natured pokes at the fantasy genre made me laugh out loud while reading. I know there has been some weirdness regarding the continuation of the series, but I really hope it does continue.

Best Series Ender: Morning Star, by Pierce Brown
The Red Rising series has been one of my absolute favorites of recent years, and though this final entry may not have eclipsed Golden Son as my favorite of the series, it was very, very good. There’s one thing that came up at the end that I’m still ambivalent about that I’m not going to talk about here because spoilers, but it was a sweeping, emotional end to a fantastic trilogy. I’m looking forward to seeing what the author does with this world next.

Best Soul-Nourishing Heart-Book: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Starting this book felt like sinking into a feather bed. I felt the same way reading it that I did reading some of my favorite books from my childhood—Ella Enchanted, especially—but in a more mature way, if that makes sense. I’m sure it’s already been said in the jacket blurbs for the book, but it is fairy tale for grown-ups, and perfect. I can’t think of one thing I would change about it. The engagement I felt while reading it, the intense need to just not.stop.reading, and the happiness I felt after finishing it—I just haven’t felt that way about a book in a long while.

Best New-to-Me Series: The Shades of Magic Series, by V.E. Schwab
If Uprooted nourished the historical fairytale side of my reading personality, The Shades of Magic books nourish the slightly darker, sharper facet of said personality. These books are witty, and wise, and harrowing, and FUN. I love them. A Darker Shade of Magic and Uprooted are the two books I bought for everyone for Christmas, and everyone knows that when I get militantly insistent about reading a certain book, I must really, REALLY adore it.

Best Book That Nourished Yet Another Facet of My Literary Personality: The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath, by Ishbelle Bee
So, if I had to pick a couple authors to typify these various sides of my literary personality, one might be the Gail Carson Levine/Megan Whalen Turner/Elizabeth C. Bunce side (the side Uprooted appeals to). Another might be the Holly Black/Neil Gaiman side (where The Shades of Magic gets mentally filed for me). And yet another, the present one, would be the Catherynne Valente side. I love books that are magical and poetic and feel like they speak directly to me, touch my heart, in the way that art can. Mirror & Goliath has that sort of sensory language and intense imagery, and at times feels almost stream-of-consciousness (though the storytelling is still quite clear!), similar to some of my favorite Cat Valente stories. It is a beautiful book, and I loved it.

So those were some of my favorites from last year, and here, very quickly, is a preview of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2017!



What were some of your favorite reads of 2016? What are you looking forward to reading in the year to come? Hit up the comments and let us know!

**Where did the books come from? Glad you asked! Purchased: Rat Queens, Morning Star, A Darker Shade of Magic (well, library, then purchased a copy), and A Gathering of Shadows. Library: The Amory Ames books, All the Single Ladies, Bitch Planet, and Paper Girls. ARC from publisher: Lumberjanes (physical copy) and Monstress (digital copy). ARC from publisher, then either purchased or checked out from library: Uprooted (ARC, then purchased) and Mirror & Goliath (ARC, then libraried). As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

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