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Mar. 1st, 2017

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What did you just finish?
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. A biography focused on Cleopatra, but with plenty of detours into Roman history, Alexander the Great's afterlife, Hellenistic Egypt, King Herod of Judea, the library of Alexandria, and other such fascinating side-stories.

And it's kind of a good thing that the book is filled up with these other topics, because unfortunately there simply is not that much of a historical record about Cleopatra's life. To quote Schiff, "For a woman who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra's story would be entrusted primarily to that city's historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." Schiff struggles against this as much as she can, but inevitably there are many blank years which can only be filled with "presumably" and "she must have" and "other Egyptian rulers did". I hate to say it, because it's not Schiff's fault, but I finished the book feeling like I'd learned nothing new. Cleopatra remains a far more unknowable personality than Julius Caesar or Mark Antony or Octavius or any of the other familiar names from this period.

I mainly picked up this book because I loved, loved, loved Schiff's book on the Salem Witch trials, but alas, this one did not quite live up to my expectations. On the other hand, I did discover the Ptolemaic family tree, which makes the Habsburgs look reasonable. Goddamn, people. A family tree should branch!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. A novel set in the immigrant Sikh community of London. Nikki is a college dropout, primarily because she couldn't find a major she was passionate about, and is currently wasting her time by tending bar. She answers an ad looking for a creative writer teacher on impulse, figuring that hey, she's a reader! She could probably teach writing!

Instead she discovers that a) the class is supposed to be adult literacy, not memoir-writing, b) the students are primarily widows only semi-fluent in English who mostly just want to hang out and be entertained, and c) after accidentally discovering the existence of sexy romance novels, it turns out what the widows really want to do is tell erotic stories. Stories about themselves, stories about fantasies, fanfic about their favorite soap operas, fairy tales turned into sex epics, married couples, f/f couples, threesomes, kinky – all sorts of erotic stories. Nikki is at first mostly embarrassed to have a class full of people who look like her mom loudly debating the best vegetable to compare a penis to, but eventually comes around to seeing the stories as an important creative expression and her own role as teaching the women to stand up for themselves.

This part of the novel is all huge fun, if not particularly deep, and I had a great time reading it. Unfortunately there's a B-plot involving multiple murders, a vast cover-up conspiracy, a secret affair, disguised handwriting, and general melodrama. This part did not work so well for me. It just didn't seem to fit with the relatively small story of ten women rediscovering their passions – physical or not.

Ah, well. It wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, which remains a sweet, breezy read.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Cleopatra brings me up to 7. On the other hand, there was a church book sale in my neighborhood last weekend, and I bought 7 books. (But they were only $2!! Of course I had to!) So one might more accurately say I'm at 0.

What are you currently reading?
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. Jane Eyre retold with Jane as a serial killer!


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