I think 2013 is going to be The Year of the Great Nonfiction Reads for me. I keep finding more and more nonfiction I want to read. Seriously, I'll bet I could read nothing but nonfiction for the rest of the year and never finish all the books on my list.
I was looking for a great biography for my library book group and this kept popping up on the radar, and after narrowing the selection down to three or four books, I took them all out to lunch with me. After a few pages of this one, I was hooked, and would have kept right on reading it except I try very hard to wait until the month before to start it. Normally, I allow even less time, since I like to keep the book fresh in my mind for the discussion. This time I let myself start it a month early because it's about 600 pages long.
I never really knew very much about European history during the 18th century -- I've read War and Peace (though I've forgotten most of it) and I remember some stuff I've read about the French kings and the Revolution, but that's pretty much it. All the 18th century history I remember is mostly about the American Revolution. For example, I had no idea that both Catherine AND her husband Peter were actually German -- Catherine (born Sophia) was a minor German princess whose mother's brother had originally been engaged to Empress Elizabeth, though he died while they were still betrothed. Elizabeth never married and after she seized power years later, she decided to that her heir, her nephew Peter (grandson of Peter the Great) should marry Catherine, his cousin, so they could produce an heir and ensure that Peter's lineage would continue. Catherine embraced the Russian language and culture though Peter always hated it and wanted to return to Germany.
Basically, Catherine was AWESOME. This is in the 1700s, when doctors thought it was still an good idea to drain your blood when you were sick, America hadn't even signed the Declaration of Independence, and a huge percentage of the Russian population was poor or even serfs. Meanwhile, Catherine was educated and enlightened -- she corresponded regularly with Voltaire and Diderot; spent two years trying to create an enlightened system of government, with a document called the Nakaz, (which ultimately failed) -- even before the Americans wrote the Constitution; she even had herself inoculated against smallpox in 1780, to show that it was safe. By 1800, more than 2 million Russians had been inoculated as well.
If this sounds dry, and boring, well, it wasn't. I probably should have waited until nearer the discussion because it was an absolute page-turner. Intrigues, scandals, plotting -- seriously, parts of this book are like an 18th-century version of Game of Thrones, but without the dragons. Catherine's husband definitely reminded me the vile Prince Joffrey, and Catherine the Great is just as clever as Margaery Tyrell. Lord Vaerys and some the other King's Landing courtiers would have fit right in the palaces in Moscow and St. Petersburg, if they had warmer costumes.
|Margaery and Joffrey aka Catherine the Great and Peter|
This book has really spurred my interest in royal biographies -- I still have The Duchess by Amanda Foreman and Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser on the TBR shelf, so I'm ready to tackle those. And Massie's other books about the Russian royalty are definitely going on my to-read list. I haven't decided if I should go backward in time and read his biography of Peter the Great, or skip forward and read about the Romanovs. I'm also thinking about reading some Russian lit this summer, probably Dead Souls by Gogol.
Has anyone else read Robert Massie's books? Which did you like best? And what about Russian lit? I'm a little scared off since I read Anna Karenina, but if Gogol goes well I might even try Dostoevsky!