Books I'm reading 3
In these viral times, with so many of us house-bound, books can be wonderful companions. Here are three books I've enjoyed lately, each one completely different to the others:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie
I usually steer clear of history books, because so often they are dry and unimaginative. But I made an exception here, because I'm writing a biography and I'm interested to know how different authors tackle them.
I'm so glad I did. As I read the book, I kept thinking, 'What an amazing woman!' and also, 'What a great read!'
Robert Massie studied history at Yale and Oxford. He's extensively researched Catherine's life, and, as the New York Times stated, he writes as though he's looking at the world through Catherine's eyes. Massie is also an amazing storyteller, helping the reader to learn history in an enjoyable way.
This mix of perspective along with great storytelling, allows the reader to understand why Catherine made the decisions she did. He brings to life her experiences as the unloved daughter of a mother who only ever wanted a son, her overriding ambition, unhappy marriage, and the overthrow of her husband to become Empress. Catherine was a brilliant woman and a consummate politician, and only made laws once she had canvassed the leaders who would have to implement them. She was one of the most well-read women in Europe, corresponding with Grimm, Diderot and Voltaire, and reading Montesquieu and Tacitus, and she was a great art collector. She had herself inoculated against smallpox, encouraging her subjects to do the same. She extended the Russian Empire by over 500,000 square kilometres. The list goes on and on.
The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre
I read this book on the recommendation of a friend. A true story, it follows the life of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who spied for MI6 from 1973 until his incredible escape from Moscow in 1985.
The story is all the more remarkable because of Gordievsky's seniority in the KGB, and the fact that he was from a 'KGB family' - his father and brother both worked for the organisation.
I couldn't stop reading this book - it was like a spy thriller. Ben Macintyre, like Massie, is a writer who not only researches his topic thoroughly, but also gives history a personal dimension, in this case making it easy to follow the intrigues of, and inter-relationships between, the secret services of different cold war countries.
And it was interesting to find that Gordievsky possibly helped to make the world a safer place by telling MI6 how needlessly worried the Russians were, of a nuclear attack by the west.
The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle
In an earlier blog post I briefly covered the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but for some reason I'd never read The Lost World, by the same author.
It's easy to see how this story inspired Jurassic Park. In the story, a journalist called Malone wants to impress his girlfriend, and so he takes off on a scientific expedition to the Lost World. Full of hair-raising adventures with pre-historic creatures in a mysterious part of the Amazon, it's a fun read even now, over one hundred years after it was written. I particularly loved a later scene in the book where a pterodactyl-type animal flies through a club in London.
Stereotypes of the age abound, but that's exactly what I was looking for in the book, because this is an era that I'm researching for my novel.