The Essex Serpent

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part mystery, part romance, part psychological sort-of gothic, this is a historical novel with a strong and compelling female main character. Literate and atmospheric, I enjoyed this very much. It is a study in contrasts: science vs. religion/superstition, feminism vs. the typical Victorian view of women, illusion/ambiguity/chaos vs. order, city vs. rural, poverty vs. wealth, etc. The themes are timeless, the relationships (like real life) can’t always be black and white. And the serpent has so many possible interpretations: the Biblical serpent of Adam and Eve, the serpent of Asclepias, the serpent can represent temptation and the devil, and it can also be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It is tempting to say the serpent represents the Kundalini, vital energy that seeks to balance the masculine and feminine within us, intellect and emotion, and our conscious vs. unconscious selves. This is a rich and multilayered story that invites rereading.

Description: When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

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Dictator

Dictator (Cicero, #3)Dictator by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this third volume on the life of Cicero, we finally get to see Cicero the philosopher and the writer. Exiled from Rome, he retires from politics and turns to the work that he is perhaps best known for. Seen through the eyes of his former slave and now secretary, Tiro, this is one man’s candid assessment, warts and all, of Cicero’s great accomplishments and his great failures. Because politics takes more of a back seat, at least in the first half of the book, we see a bit more of Cicero’s family, and I think a little more of Tiro as well. From afar, we see the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the chaos and violence following his assassination that calls a reluctant Cicero back to Rome. Ultimately, the aging statesman cannot compete with the greed and militarism of his younger compatriots. It’s tempting to draw parallels with current politics and that is not a comforting thought. The quest of right versus might is as old as mankind, along with the desire to both live well and die well.

Audiobook read by David Rintoul

Description: At the age of forty-eight, Cicero—the greatest orator of his time—is in exile, his power sacrificed on the altar of his principles. The only way to return to Rome is to pledge his support to a charismatic and dangerous enemy: Julius Caesar. Harnessing his political cunning, unrivalled intellect, and the sheer brilliance of his words, Cicero fights his way back to prominence. Yet no public figure is completely safeguarded against the unscrupulous ambition of others. Riveting and tumultuous, Dictator encompasses the most epic events in ancient history, including the collapse of the Roman Republic, the murder of Pompey, and the assassination of Caesar. But its central question is a timeless one: how to keep political freedom unsullied by personal gain, vested interests, and the corrosive effects of ceaseless foreign wars. In Robert Harris’s indelible portrait, Cicero is a deeply fascinating hero for his own time and for ours.

Conspirata

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient RomeConspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although it has been almost two years since I read the first book in this trilogy about the life of Cicero, I was quickly reminded of the compelling way Robert Harris writes, which sucks you right into the time and place. At the same time it feels more contemporary than historical. Perhaps that is because in many ways our country and our politics has more in common with ancient Rome than with the medieval kings and queens of Europe. We left off in the previous book just as Cicero has achieved the rank of consul, and this one covers the five-year period ending with Cicero’s exile in 59 BC. [The title of the British edition of Conspirata is “Lustrum,” which is the Latin term for a 5-year time period.] It is not necessary to have read the first book. I think each of these could stand alone.

More tightly plotted than Imperium, this book centers around the conspiracy of Catalina. While initially successful at stopping it, and executing 5 of the conspirators, Cicero’s actions will eventually cause his own downfall. We also witness a deepening rift between Cicero and Julius Caesar. Told from the point of view of Cicero’s secretary, we get to see the heroism of his dedication to the Republic, but also a man not immune to hubris and greed. I felt this got a bit muddled in the middle, and I got a little tired of all politics all the time (would love to have seen more of Cicero’s private life – his wife and children – his writing, etc.) but I am continuing on with book number 3.

Narrated once again by Simon Jones.

Description: Elected by the public, yet hated by the patricians and populists, Marcus Cicero prepares for his inauguration as consul of Rome. However, the grisly murder of a boy overshadows his induction and ignites fear throughout a city already plagued by crime and civil unrest. To add to Cicero’s worries, he hears rumors of an attack on his life by the hands of young Roman senator Gaius Julius Caesar.

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The Glass Room

The Glass RoomThe Glass Room by Simon Mawer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fictional main characters, but based on a real house: Villa Tugendhat (http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/). The house serves as the lens through which we view the characters and the action, sort of like a camera. Lots of metaphors about light and space, plays on words (Raum/Traum), and philosophical musings. But on the whole, I didn’t get it. The characters were cold, unemotional, and not very likeable. Lots of sex and sex talk, which left me cold. Perhaps that appeals to men – as a woman it didn’t appeal to me and got old very quickly. On the other hand, I thought the three women of the story, Liesl, Hana, and Katalyn were more real than the men in their lives. The story was all intellectual, scientific, clinical without any emotion. The men all had mistresses without any feelings of conflict or guilt. The women all seemed to have lesbian tendencies. Really? Was this another metaphor for the Zeitgeist of change after WWI? The expansion of old boundaries? When the Nazis took over the house and turned it into a scientific laboratory, I felt like the war was “out there” somewhere. The Landauers had left and made a new life elsewhere. There are some great ideas here and for that I could almost give this book a higher rating. I enjoyed the promise of the new house – and the desire to fill it with art and music and all those things that make life transcendent. But with light comes shadows – the shadows of infidelity, the shadows of war, of keeping secrets – the idealism that first drives Nazism, Communism, modernism (and other -isms) eventually shatters like glass.

Book description: High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass. This radiant 1930s house, with its unique Glass Room, quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WWII gather. The house passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, and bears witness to both the best and the worst history of Eastern Europe.