So recently, I have been challenging myself a lot. I don't mean that I've been going out rock-climbing and have pushed myself to the limits of my strength. I mean I say to myself "You're going to finish this book in a week!" And then I do. It started out simply enough -- read the last 4 books in a series in a week. Mission accomplished. Then, read Death Comes to Pemberley in a week. Mission accomplished. Next, read The House I Loved by Tatiana De Rosnay in a week. Mission accomplished. It was easy with the last two because they 7-day books. See, we have this neat thing at my library called "Most Wanted". It's a selection of the newest, most popular books, and you can only check them out for 7 days. You can't put a hold on them or reserve them, you can't renew them, and they're intended to be out there for people to just pick up on a whim. Likewise, we do that for really new movies and give them a 3-day check-out. I like this because it pressures me into really diving into a book and finishing it. Death and House weren't hard -- they were both relatively thin fluff novels. And then I saw Catherine.
It was intrigue at first glance. I have always been fascinated by Russian history. When I was a kid, that really inaccurate and cheesy Don Bluth movie, Anastasia, was one of my favorites. I can still sing every song from it. More importantly, intellectually, it sparked a life-long interest in Russia. So far (and still) it's really only a casual acquaintance and I don't presume that I know much of anything about it, but it keeps me interested and learning. When I was a teenager, I saw this movie called Russian Ark. It is, hands down, one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. It is the longest single, uncut shot in movie history, clocking in at an hour and a half (i.e. the whole movie). It's about this guy who loses consciousness, and when he regains it he doesn't really remember who he is but he's wandering around the Hermitage with this European from the 19th century (you never see the narrator). They walk around, run into famous figures from history (who are usually kind of sinister), and talk about art. Oh yes, and there's an overtone of philosophy and the meaning of life. Really an interesting movie.
When this big book arrived on our shelves, I was curious. I knew about Catherine the Great from that movie, but I didn't really know anything about her. Having said that, I felt sort of stupid. Here I am, professing to be interested in Russian history, and I don't really know that much about it. I put myself on the request list, but as it was 160 people long I didn't really have much hope of reading it before I left. But then, I DECIDED LIFE WAS TOO SHORT AND I WAS GOING TO READ IT MWAHAHA. So I waited patiently until an available copy showed up somewhere in Most Wanted, snagged it, and started reading.
This book reads like a novel. Seriously. Or else how did I get through 574 pages of biographical history in a mere 7 days, wherein I worked a total of 25 hours? The writing style interested me immediately and kept me interested the whole way through. Here are some cool facts about Catherine to prompt YOU to read this book:
#1: Catherine was the foremost European collector of art during the Enlightenment, which led to the creation of the aforementioned Hermitage, one of the premier museums in the world today.
#2: She created the first governmental body of people to include representatives from every class in the empire, including peasants, long before the American or the French Revolution.
#3: She extended Russian territory down into the Baltic (taking a huge chunk of Turkish land), created a Russian navy, placed a former lover on the throne of Poland, and then used his ineffectual governing to literally dissolve Poland and split up its territories between herself, Austria, and Prussia.
#4: Catherine took the throne from her mentally unstable and damaged husband, Peter III, with relative ease. And then, instead of merely acting as regent for her son until he became of age, she ruled it all herself.
#5: Born a German princess, she learned Russian, she converted, she took a new name, and she passionately involved herself in everything Russian so she could better run the country and look after her servants.
And #6, not about Catherine but I learned it while reading this book and it was very interesting: France used the guillotine as their main form of capital punishment until 1977. 1977. I had no idea and I find this practice insane. I know that, as an American, I have no proverbial leg to stand on, but still. Guillotine? Really?
I learned soooooooooooo much from this book. Ever heard of Battleship Potemkin? Yeah, I learned who Potemkin was. I learned about the leading monarchs and intellectuals of Europe, I learned a ton about Russian culture and institutions, and, mostly, I learned about the life of one extraordinary woman. She did what she liked, ruled how she like, but was still conciliatory, kind, and in absolute control. I would recommend this book for everyone, not just a hardcore history buff. It is good enough to appeal to everyone, while not compromising the intellectual integrity of the material itself. Massie's research is impeccable, his style entertaining, and his portraits human and realistic. I think it is a mark of a good biographer when you come away feeling like the person being chronicled was, in fact, a person -- not a saint, not a sinner, not untouchable, but a human with fine points as well as flaws. Massie excels at making the basic humanity of Catherine (and thus her similarities to us today) stand out.
In conclusion, if you want to read anything, here's the book for you. Maybe don't read it in a week, but do check it out. I promise you'll be showered with rubles and jewels and character sketches if you do. And next up for me: the first book in the Hunger Games series. I am way more interested in reading another lesbian novel at this point (anyone read Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters?) but I have checked it out, the movie's coming out tomorrow, there's no turning back. It's sink or swim, and I'm determined to swim. Catch you in a day or two.