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The Histories

The Histories by Herodotus.  It’s epic.  Epic in length, it took me over five months to read.  Epic in scope, chronicling the Persian Empire from Cyrus to Xerxes and Greece’s rise to dominance.  Epic in what Herodotus was trying to do, write the first history rooted in fact not myth.

Even though it’s pacing can be a little inconsistent, Herodotus has a tendency to go off on tangents, I found myself enjoying that aspect of The Histories.  I imagine Herodotus as being an intelligent, slightly scatter-brained man with a sharp wit who would be an endless repository of random, fascinating facts. Some might think  the chatty, gossipy tone of the book is a weak point, but I don’t.  Especially in the first few books of The Histories, this comes through.  You feel like you’re sitting around the fire with Herodotus with a jug of wine, listening to him go on and on about the Persians and Egyptians, their customs, foods, and gods.

After about the halfway point the story begins to pick up and we’re treated to an account of how a supposedly weak and fractured group of city states in Greece banded together against the invading army of Persians and managed to defeat them.  We read about the famous battles of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea.  As I read it I really was amazed that the Greeks won.  Not only were they outnumbered by the Persians, but often divided by petty rivalries.  Large numbers of the Greek city states either were on the Persian’s side or sitting on the sidelines to see the outcome of the war.  Still at critical moments in the battle, using ingenuity and stratagem, they showed a determination and courage in battle that the Persians simply didn’t have.  Their defeat of Xerxes was a turning point in history, laying the foundation for the rise of Greece and western civilization.

The Hunger Games

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to The Hunger Games for getting me out of a reading rut.  The last few months have been a blur of life changes and reading wasn’t the refuge it had been for me in the past.  I was finding it harder and harder to stick to my commitment of reading at least an hour a day and vegging in front on the TV was becoming difficult to resist.

I decided to read The Hunger Games a few days before the movie’s release.  I’m probably the last person on the planet to read it and I have to admit the plot didn’t seem to be very interesting to me, knowing my penchant for lush, historical novels.  Was I ever wrong.  After the first two or three chapters I was completely drawn into the story of Katniss, a girl living in a horrifying dystopia where randomly picked teens battle to the death on reality TV.  It sounds cliche, but I couldn’t put it down.  Suzanne Collin’s writing is amazing, simple and direct, allowing you to be swept into the momentum of the story.  As I was reading this I kept wondering at how this could be considered a young adult novel.  The only young thing about it is that the main characters just happen to be teenagers.  The story is dark and thought provoking, appealing to readers of all ages, not just teens.  However because it was written for the young adult age bracket, I appreciate how Collins tactfully handled the violence in the book.  It’s there and reported when necessary but not gratuitously.

I’m now speeding through book two Catching Fire and no doubt will move quickly on to book three, Mockingjay after that.  I also got my husband reading it along with me, and when he’s finished we’re going to treat ourselves to a date night with the movie.

The Second Duchess

I haven’t had much time to blog lately.  Since January I’ve been in an intense online class for a customer service job that mercifully will be coming to an end in two weeks.  Every morning Monday through Friday my alarm goes off at 7 and by 8 I’m stationed at my computer with my headset on, second  cup of coffee by my side, and ready to plunge into the detailed world of timeshares.  (I don’t know how much I’m actually allowed to say about my employer so we’ll just leave it at that.)  The class is over at noon, but there’s homework and my other responsibilities to see to, so my schedule is nonstop until about 8 or so at night.

I was worried when I began the class that my reading would suffer because of this, and I had just set my goodreads.com reading goal for the ambitious number of 45 books for the year of 2012.  However I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my reading habits have remained the same.  I’m still reading everyday usually for an hour and half or so, I just begin my evening reading earlier since I’m usually near passing out around 10:30.

The first stand out book for me this year has been The Second Duchess by Elisabeth Loupas.  Is it historical fiction?  Is it a murder mystery?  It’s both!  It’s based on the very real historical figures of Barbara of Austria and her husband Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara.  For centuries rumors have swirled that the Duke murdered his first wife the young and beautiful Lucrezia de Medici, Browning wrote about it in his poem “My Last Duchess”.

The novel is told from the point of view of Barbara the duke’s second wife.  She learns about the rumors and decides to investigate into the death of Lucrezia.  This is risky since her husband, a very temperamental man, has strictly forbidden her to even speak of the first duchess.  The investigation is carried out against the lushly detailed background of the court at Ferrara.  I really did feel like I was living in 16th century Italy.  The duke was an intriguing anti-hero (and I have a weakness for anti-heroes) who I started out hating but ended up all mushy for.  I appreciated how the author didn’t glamorize him.  Yes he was a flawed man with too much pride and vanity and capable of cruelty, but he wasn’t a monster either, rather he was a product of his times.

Commentary in the book is also provided by the dead first wife herself, Lucrezia, or rather the mostly dead Lucrezia.  As she’s stuck between life and death she observes the investigation and provides insight into her life and marriage.

The Second Duchess was a perfect escape for me after hectic days spent in the classroom, my only regret being that I finished it too quickly.

2011 in Review

Wow, 2011 has been an amazing year for me in reading.  Actually it was my best year ever, hands down.  I read more books in 2011 than I ever had before and I’ve read more widely.  What changed?  Starting around the fall of 2010, inspired by Pat William’s book Read for Your Life, I made reading a priority.  I committed to reading at least an hour each day.  I’m so committed to reading an hour a day that my phone’s to-do list reminds me to do it!  (I know, I know, that may completely remove the joy and romance of reading for some but it works for me…)  It took a little while to get into the habit, but now it’s automatic and most days I read more, perhaps for an hour and a half or two, and I love it.  My day now doesn’t feel right if I haven’t read at least an hour.  I’m not a fast reader, but I’ve found that by consistently reading daily, instead of the sporadic spurts I used to do, I can read a decent number of books.  How many you ask?  Well that brings me to my first point in my 2011 reading recap.

44 Books Read!

Yay me!  44 books was quite an accomplishment and I’m proud of myself.  I’m setting as my goal this year 45 books.  I’ve got a busy schedule with work starting this year, but I’m hoping my good reading habits will see me through to completing my new reading goal.

Historical Mysteries

I love historical fiction and last year I discovered the abundant variety of historical mysteries.  They had never interested me before, but then I got Medicus by Ruth Downie when it was offered as a freebie on Kindle and I downloaded it.  It was great and I was hooked.  They were great for days when I was tired and just wanted to veg mentally with an easy book but still wanted to be instructed.  Two of my favorite series have been Ruth Downie Medicus’ series set in ancient Roman Britannia and Jason Goodwin’s Yashim the Eunuch series set in 1830’s Istanbul.

The Great Books List

I’ve slowly been chipping through the New Lifetime Reading Plan and last year I accomplished much more than I expected.  I thought that it would be a slow boring trudge through the ancients, but it’s been anything but that.  I constantly remark as I read the classics how people back then were basically the same as us today with their wants and desires.  Also the classics are much more accessible than I expected them to be and free Cliff’s Notes available online were a great reference.

Reading in French

I’m not going to go on much about this, since I just posted about reading in French.  Suffice it to say that French books, either classics or modern works, will be staying in my reading mix as a great way to keep up my language comprehension and enjoy French works in the original.

So there you have it!  The 2011 recap.  I’m really looking forward to 2012 and know it will be as much if not more rewarding and satisfying.

Lessons from Madame Chic

I’ve been a fan of Jennifer L. Scott’s blog The Daily Connoisseur for quite some time.  Her posts on living an elegant everyday life are insightful and intelligent without being pretentious.  So when she announced her plans to publish a book about her time spent in Paris, I had to have it.  What perfect timing that it became available on Kindle while I was on vacation in Paris.  Heaven!

Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris is just that, a 20 item countdown of life lessons that range from eating and skincare to entertaining and living life with passion.  Every chapter ends with Le Recap that sums up conveniently the points covered, a great feature for my OCD self.  When I bought the book initially I was looking forward to the chapters on not snacking and cultivating the intellect, but as I read it I found the ones that touched me the most were the last three on simple pleasures, quality above all and living a passionate life.  It really struck home some conclusions I had come to myself while on vacation in France about the need to slow down and really live life in the moment and not just mindlessly be swept along on a wave of stress through our frazzled lives like sleepwalkers.  Jennifer writes “You do not have to be on vacation in a romantic, foreign city to live a life of rapture.  You can enjoy yourself no matter what the circumstances… You are in control of every experience of your life. It is up to you to decide how it will go.”  I completely agree with that and will be striving to implement that resolve in my life in the months to come.  The earlier chapters about improving the tangible aspects of life complement the later more philosophical ones by giving a blueprint of how to incorporate passion and quality into every aspect of our lives.   It’s a wonderful book and at $2.99 on the Kindle a steal as well!

Reading in French

As I’ve been slowly carving my way through Assimil’s Using French I’ve made a milestone.  I’m reading fiction en français!  At about the mid-point of Using French, I covered the passé simple, a weird tense that isn’t used in spoken French, but appears everywhere in written French.  After that week I decided to take the plunge and read a book in French.  My first book, I’m very ashamed to admit, was a translated regency romance novel that was offered free on amazon.fr.  Yes it was formulaic shallow fluff, but it was perfect as a first foray into French fiction.  Easy reading with a small vocabulary and a very basic plot.  I loved having the ability to use my French dictionary on my Kindle to satisfy my insatiable desire to look up every word I didn’t recognize.  I finished my first book in about a week, feeling quite accomplished if a bit embarrassed.

But I made up for my crassness with my next choice a selection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, Claire de Lune.  Again I was a little scared, but after the first few stories I learned his style and choice of words and enjoyed my reading of it.  That’s something I’ve noticed already about reading in a foreign language.  You start out slowly, but about 20 or 30 pages in you’ve learned the author’s style and the words they like to use over and over and your pace picks up.  So stick with it and be patient with yourself.  It will get easier.

Currently I’m reading the first in a highly acclaimed series chronicling the kings of France in the 14th century by the late Maurice Druon, a member of the Acadamie Francaise.  Le Roi de Fer is probably the most complex book that I’ve tackled yet in French, but I feel up for the challenge.  I love historical fiction, and this is historical fiction of the highest caliber that’s educational, full of footnotes and immersive.  There are six more books in the series, so I’ll be occupied with Druon for a while.

Camping

I took a little mini-vacation with my husband last weekend and we went camping in a nearby state park.  I love camping because it’s a cheap way to get away from it all and spend some serious time with my Kindle.  We have a little, old, finicky pop-up trailer that makes our getaways quite comfortable.  We stock up on yummy food, set out our camp chairs and read for hours with a gin and tonic nearby.  Ahh bliss…

I finished two books last week camping.  First up:

Euripides’ Ten Plays:  This was the last of the big three Greek playwrights on my reading list, and I think Euripides is my favorite.  Why?  A few reasons.  First off his writing just seemed to me to be fresher and easier to get into.  Perhaps it was the translation, which was excellent, by Paul Roche, but I think it was more of Euripides’ style than anything else.  Also he has mercifully short choruses.  I know they’re a staple of Greek plays, but I really am not a fan of the choruses, they just seem to be a waste of time to me.  Maybe my tastes aren’t refined enough to enjoy them.

However what I loved the most about Euripides were the women in his works and his commentary on them.  The man was almost a feminist.  He showed, especially in plays like Medea, how being a woman in ancient Greece was a pretty raw deal.  Medea laments her lot in life, saying

“Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst-treated things alive.
To begin with, we bid the highest price in dowries just to buy some man to be dictator of our bodies.”

Of course, none of that justifies killing your children, which Medea later does, but it is fascinating that a man felt such pity for women.  It’s also intriguing to note that in ancient Greece women were not allowed to the festivals where the plays were performed, the audience was exclusively male.  So it’s not as if Euripides inserted these bits into his plays to appease them.  He did it because he saw the injustice of their situation.

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin:  Another great find in my newly found genre of historical mysteries.  The series is set in 1830’s Istanbul, in the years of decline for the Ottoman Empire.  Yashim the Eunuch is the protagonist and we follow him through the winding alleys of old Istanbul while he tries to solve a mysterious string of murders.  The plot was almost of secondary importance to me, I just really enjoyed vicariously traveling through Yashim’s eyes.  The book is chock full of atmosphere and historical tidbits and made a quick read.  Number two is definitely on my to-read list.

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