Saturday, December 10, 2011

Catherine the Great verses Charles Dickens

I read a lot of biographies but I almost never (and by that I mean never I think) review them here. Why? I somehow don't feel qualified to do that. I'm no historian or scholar so I cannot comment on accuracy or compare the newest bio of Jack Big Cheese with the book that was considered the definitive bio of Jack when it was released five years ago. However I somehow do feel equal to the task of sharing my opinions on fiction. 

Go figure. We all have issues.

The last two biographies I read were so completely satisfying, entertaining and enlightening that I am forced to write about them. I don’t want anyone who has the slightest interest in these two books to pass on them for any reason. Reviewing these biographies is not a wave of change but rather my continuing, overwhelming desire to force the books that I enjoy onto others. Let the nagging begin.

Must read #1 is Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. You already know the basics of Dickens life going into this book so why read the bio? As readers all that enriches your reading experience is worth investigating and that’s what this book will do. Not only does Tomlinson tell Dickens’ story but she also tells the story of his novels. In a sense reading Charles Dickens is like taking an amazing course on Victorian history, the life of Charles Dickens and the novels of Dickens given by the professor of your dreams.

The biggest surprise for me regarding Charles Dickens: A Life? It was the extent of which money controlled his life. The fear of not having it, the many ways he earned it, money verses art and the amount of money he needed.

Must read #2 is Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie. Again you know the basics so why read the bio? Well there is the woman herself. A truly unique, ahead of her time, heroine and then there is the mystery of Russia. Massie does justice to them both. Massie explains how a minor German princess became one of the most powerful leaders in history with all the juicy enthusiasm of a novelist and all the big picture insight of a Monday morning quarterback.

The biggest surprise? The control that Catherine was able to take over her own life despite having to kowtow to an Empress that could change Catherine’s life with as much effort as it takes to swat a fly. Catherine the Great might be the ultimate example of reinventing yourself.

Massie and Tomalin are no Johnny-come-lately-s to writing amazing biographies. They each have a rich pile of work under their belt. In Charles Dickens and Catherine the Great they have chosen subjects worthy of their attention and our fascination. They are masters at the creation of great reading out of thorough research. No small feat. You don’t read Charles Dickens: A Life and Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman so much as you settle in with two spellbinding storytellers who happily acquaint you with the fascinating life and times of the most remarkable people you wish you had met.

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