Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova Book Review

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Review:

Anna Akhmatova has been one of my favorite poets since discovering her in my college Russian classes. She had a wonderful gift for lyric poetry and in her youth, her poems were sheer beauty. Her mature poems, on the other hand, are both beautiful and gut-wrenching, for Akhmatova lived through several of the most dangerous and turbulent periods of Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges. Her ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev (also a poet), was shot in 1921 for suspected anti-Bolshevist activity, her common law husband Nikolai Punin was arrested repeatedly and eventually died in the Gulag, and her son Lev (by Gumilev) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges. Many of her close friends and associates, including Gorky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Esenin, were also killed or committed suicide.

These experiences gave weight to what is, in my opinion, her greatest poem, Requiem. An excerpt:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
innocent lives are ending now…

I gave my copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova to my brother when we moved and kept Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova because Selected Poems is dual-language in Russian and English, while the Complete Poems is English-only. The English translations, by Judith Hemschemeyer in both books, are accurate in meaning and strive valiantly for the beauty and lyricism of Akhmatova’s words, but of course, nothing can compare to the original, so I kept the smaller volume because it has most of my favorite poems anyway (“Poem Without a Hero” is the most notable omission) and I wanted to have both English and Russian versions of her poems together. As a student of Russian, it’s good practice. If you don’t read any Russian, you may prefer the Complete Poems.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Amelia Peabody Series

"I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing." Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons

“I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing.” Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons)

Review:

One of my favorite series! Though I had issues with some of the later books, overall this is an extremely fun and enjoyable historical mystery series, starring a female Egyptologist and her family in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. The mysteries themselves are mostly pretty good, but I love the series most for its humor. Expect to laugh frequently and loudly! The novels are among the most quotable I’ve ever read, from recurring catch phrases like “Another shirt ruined!” to Amelia’s pithy observations on life. (There are good collections of quotes here and here.)

Correction: I love it for the humor, and the characters. Amelia, Emerson, Ramses, Sethos, and the rest are larger than life, but so entertaining and (frequently) adorable that they’re irresistible. Reading about their latest adventures is like catching up with old friends. Amelia and Emerson in particular are rumored to be part of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones, as well as Rick O’Connell and Evy Carnahan in The Mummy.

Series author Elizabeth Peters, who died in 2013, had a Ph.D in Egyptology, so you’ll also learn interesting stuff about Egyptian culture and archaeology along the way.

Here’s the complete series, with my commentary:

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Think of England Book Review

Review:

I’ve read quite a bit of slashy fanfiction, but not so much m/m original fiction, so since I’m in a little bit of a fandom drought right now, I thought I’d take the opportunity to try some more gay romance novels, since I enjoyed The Captive Prince so much. I settled on Think of England, by KJ Charles, as my next m/m read thanks to its great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and the blurb, which caught my interest with its promise of a Gosford Park-esque house party in Edwardian England and some mystery/thriller elements.

The mystery/thriller elements turned out to be much stronger than the Edwardian house party elements (this isn’t a bad thing – I’d have been happy with either predominating), and some of the characters make that randy old war profiteer Sir William McCordle look practically saintly by comparison. Our intrepid heroes land themselves in a mess of blackmail, treason, torture, and murder within hours of arriving for their outwardly genteel house party and the plot kept me on the edge of my seat to see how they’d unravel it.

Coincidentally enough, the intrepid heroes in question actually reminded me a lot of The Captive Prince‘s Damen and Laurent, despite the completely different setting and plot. You have Archie Curtis, the sturdy, straightforward war hero a la Damen, and Daniel da Silva, the sharp tongued, damaged schemer a la Laurent. In this case, however, our war hero is wounded, not enslaved, and our schemer is a gay Portuguese Jew rather than a prince, which is hard luck on all three accounts in 1904 England! The set-up is very “opposites attract,” which truthfully is not my favorite trope, but it ends up working well in both The Captive Prince and Think of England. (It helps in both cases, I think, that the men find out they’re not as opposite as initial appearances might suggest.) For Curtis, as an old fashioned “stiff upper lip” type British military man, Daniel da Silva (a poet, on top of everything else) was definitely a case of hate at first sight, but I thought KJ Charles did a great job of showing his gradual change in feelings from dislike and distrust to growing respect and ultimately love. Daniel remains a bit more of a cipher, but a bunch of reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads seem to think Think of England is the first in a series, and if so, I’ll look forward to learning more about him in future installments. (Edit: KJ Charles has confirmed that she is working on a sequel.)

Luckily for us readers, Daniel is less damaged (and in different ways) than Laurent, so we get a bunch of steamy sex scenes in this novel, instead of having to wait for most of another book. (Not that I mind a good slow burn, but it wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Especially when the sequel hasn’t been published yet!) Curtis’s gradual realization that he was, in fact, one of “those types” was well-paced and made for a lot of great anticipatory buildup as he realized the extent of what he really wanted to do to (and with) Daniel.

I thought the secondary characters were also well drawn, and ended up especially liking Fenella Carruth and Patricia Merton. One of my frequent complaints about slash fanfiction is that it gets so caught up in the boys that it neglects the female characters entirely, or worse, commits character assassination in order to split up a canonical m/f romance in favor of a fan-favored m/m one. Without giving too much away, neither issue happened with this book at all. In fact, I think Fen and Pat would make great characters for a spinoff story or series, whether official or fanfiction.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

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Review:

One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)