Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World

Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.

The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.

Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.

One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.

You might also like:  For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable: A Novel by [Kamal, Soniah]

I think it’s safe to say that we here at Biblio-therapy are connoisseurs of all formats of Jane Austen tributes/adaptions/updates. In the past we’ve raved about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Longbourn, and I quite enjoyed Eligible, the most recent modern-day version of the story I’d read. The latest entry into the Pride and Prejudice but with X catalog is Unmarriagable,  which initially struck me as just a relocation of the classic but ultimately turned out to have a little more going on underneath.

This telling of the story takes place in Pakistan in 2000-2001, and positions the Bennetts as a family that slid from the upper-middle class after some business disasters. They’re now trying to maintain respectability in a small, backwater city. The two oldest girls teach at the English language high school in town, while their mother clings to her old status through the connections of family and friends. The author sticks very, very closely to the original–essentially every character and plot point has a direct translation to the new setting. This made the book feel a bit rote as I read through the very familiar beats: now we’re at the first ball, now it’s the first proposal, now Lizzie (Alys in this version) is traveling with her aunt, etc. But it was fun to see how names and clothes and celebrations were adapted to twentieth-century Pakistan, and I found myself doing a lot of Googling to make sure I could accurately picture the shawl a character was wearing, or the food they were eating.

So it was an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t sure if I initially felt it was adding anything new to the genre (at this point, I think retellings of Jane Austen is its own genre). However, as the book went along, it became clear that the author was using this story and setting as a vehicle to explore colonialism and culture. Alys teaches literature at the English school, which mostly consists of teaching her Pakistani students classics of English literature. But is this their culture? British colonization of India resulted in generations of Pakistanis who speak English and were raised on English classics, so these are their stories as much as anyone else’s. But how can Alys and her students also see themselves and their lives and cultures reflected in the cannon? Unmarriagable doesn’t necessarily have answers to these big questions, but watching Alys try to work them out for herself forces the reader to face them, as well.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Elizabeth Bennett in Pakistan!

You might also like: Other than the many other Pride and Prejudice-adjacent materials I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to recommend two widely different books. First, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon is a charming YA story about teenagers whose parents may have planned for them to marry and how they choose to deal with that in present-day San Francisco. Second, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is literally 1,000 pages long and reading it felt like entering a long-term relationship, but it is a classic story of love and class and gender in 1950s India.

More Fleabag

A few weeks ago I recommended some TV that I thought the Biblio-therapy readers would enjoy, since books have been a bit disappointing of late. (I did recently enjoy Normal People by Sally Rooney, but basically everyone else in the world has written a glowing review of it.) One of the shows I talked about was Fleabag, and I mentioned that the second season would be coming to Amazon soon. I have to admit that I was a little wary of this new season–the first season was such a beautifully complete story that I couldn’t imagine how a second season could measure up. But, you guys, Season 2 is BETTER. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are wonderful things happening with characters and with the narrative structure, and it was just a sort of a perfect season of TV. Everyone should watch it. Seriously, please go watch it, because I really need someone to talk about it with.

Awesome New(ish) TV By and About Women

Do other people fall into reading ruts where you’re reading all the time and finishing lots of books, but nothing really excites you or even sticks in your memory? Over the past couple of months I’ve read all sorts of things, including some with quite a bit of buzz (The Woman in the Window, The Immortalists), but have been pretty uninspired by all of them.  But I have been watching lots of great TV, across the full range of steaming services I apparently now have to pay for. I have particularly enjoyed several short series that show some realities of being a woman that I haven’t often seen on TV before. So here are Kinsey’s official recommendations for your spring TV viewing. They’re all short enough to knock out in a single evening, although they are all also at least a little raunchy and maybe things you don’t want to watch with your mom or your kids. Although, I don’t know your life or your mom or your kids, you do you.

Derry Girls (Netflix) is a comedy about a group of friends who go to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  It captures the intricate social strata of high school girls perfectly, and the family interactions have a completely non-saccharine ring of truth to them, while also being very funny. There’s a scene where someone drops a glass on the kitchen floor and a character’s mom acts like a nuclear spill has occurred and makes everyone stand on chairs–I loved it so much I had to rewind and watch that bit again. But as funny as the show is, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always hovering on the edges, never letting anyone completely forget that they are living their lives in a battle zone. Also, there is amazing 90s music for my fellow Gen Xers, and Northern Irish accents that required me to have subtitles on to understand everything going on.

Shrill (Hulu) Lindy West’s memoir didn’t originally strike me as good source material for a fictional show, but the first season absolutely charmed me. Aidy Bryant (who I didn’t know before because I hate Saturday Night Live and never watch it) is amazing as a woman trying to navigate life as an entry-level journalist with a meddling mom and a terrible non-boyfriend. I guess you would say that her weight is the hook of the show, but it’s not like every episode is about how hard it is to be fat. Very early on she decides she is going to stop obsessing and just live her damn life, and most of the episodes are about her doing just that. Within the first five minutes of episode one I started googling to try to figure out where to buy her cute clothes and the infuriating answer is that they had to custom make basically everything because plus-size clothes are so awful. So enjoy the show, but know going in that you will not be able to buy those dresses.

Fleabag (Amazon) When I started writing this I initially thought, “Oh, I have three women-centered comedies to recommend!” But Fleabag might stretch the definition of comedy, so be warned. It follows a young London woman though encounters with men, her father and stepmother (played by the marvelous Olivia Coleman as possibly the worst woman in the world), and her sister. The main character is clearly on the verge of falling apart after a tragedy that is only slowly revealed in the show, and her relationships with her family make me want to use words like “searing” and “blistering.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the star and creator, and she is so observant and specific about the absurdity of life that the show is funny, while also pressing on some very painful areas of the psyche. Season 1 has been out for a couple of years, but I was finally inspired to watch it because Season 2 just showed to raves in the UK, and will be coming to Amazon in May. So now is a good time to get on this dark, dark train.

 

 

The Book of Essie

41qvnhhvupl._sx336_bo1,204,203,200_I am obsessed with the Duggars. Yes, in this golden age of peak TV, I have devoted many, many hours to watching various iterations of their TV show and even reading gossip blogs. As someone raised as an only child, I have long been fascinated with stories about big families. As a kid, I used to LOVE the Boxcar Children books and a 1950s time capsule series called the Happy Hollisters about a family with five kids who solve very gentle mysteries. So the reality show genre following big families was made for me, and I have watched them all. The Duggars are obviously the biggest, in terms of family size, popularity, and scandal level, and they just fascinate me. I wish I could be embedded in the family, like an anthropologist, so I could truly see how their unconventional beliefs play out in real life and how much of what you see on TV is really just for the benefit of the cameras. Meghan MacLean Weir must feel the same way, because The Book of Essie is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes story of a religious reality show family, with all the hidden secrets and scheming you can imagine.

The book kicks off with Essie, the teenage daughter whose life has been lived on TV, revealing to her mother that she is pregnant. This will not fit with the family’s public image and Essie’s mother immediately starts strategizing how to spin this unexpected development. But Essie is not about to sit around and wait for someone else to decide her fate–she’s been planning for years and has her own strategy for getting herself and her baby out of the reality show rat race. The book’s point of view alternates between Essie, one of her high school classmates who get swept into her plan, and a reporter who has her own experience with how the media and the truth intersect. This cleverly allows you to see Essie’s perspective from inside her family, but also how the rest of their small town and the larger outside world perceive the reality show circus.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the book, although nothing particularly took me by surprise. The story largely goes where you expect it to and most of the twists are fairly well-telegraphed.  Although this is not classified as a YA book, as far as I can tell, it read that way to me–the main characters are teenagers and the story is presented entirely from their point of view, and it was a quick and easy read. But I enjoyed the peek into this family with its wildly different public and private faces, and I appreciated reading a story in which a cast of female characters are running the show, for better or worse.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Emotional behind-the-scenes drama

You might also like:  Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir, not a novel, but it was one of the best books I read last year and tells a similar harrowing story of a childhood in a family on the religious fringe.

A Study in Scarlet Women

scarletBefore I started writing this review I searched through our past blog entries several times, because this seemed like such an “us” book that I couldn’t believe one of us hadn’t already written about it. It’s a lady Sherlock Holmes! A Study in Scarlet Women is the first in a series of (currently) three books by Sherry Thomas about Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant woman who throws off the constraints of her conservative Victorian family and starts solving mysteries.

Overall this is a quick, enjoyable genre read but there were a couple of things I really appreciated about it.

  • Friend of the blog Jo originally made this observation, but there is not a one to one character match. There are plenty of parallels with the original Holmes stories, but Thomas constructs a world around Charlotte that makes sense and doesn’t try to wedge everything into exact characters and relationships when another arrangement offers more insight into her characters. So you get the fun of seeing the connections, but it doesn’t feel the author has just renamed characters from the original work.
  • Charlotte is portrayed as exceptionally smart and deductive, but not superhuman. As a woman raised in a sheltered environment, she has to learn lots of things and, as the story moves along, all of the different characters in her orbit contribute to her detective work. Sherlock Holmes is traditionally this lone genius who is completely self-sufficient when it comes to solving mysteries. I liked the slightly more realistic idea that even a genius isn’t going to know everything right out of the gate and might gladly rely on friends and family for help.
  • Thomas is known for her romance novels, and there is a bit of that sensibility here, just in that the relationships in the book are treated with a lot of respect and are central elements to the story. Love is as important here as figuring out who committed the murders.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Fun, feminist mystery

You might also like:  The Deanne Raybourne mystery books–I particularly like the series that starts with Silent in the Grave. And they’ve got a slightly different feeling, but I also enjoyed the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, starting with The Crossing Places.