Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011
The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family, Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.
One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.
Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.
What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
What are you reading this week?
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
Grand Central • $27.99 • ISBN 9780446584975
on sale September 13, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has written more than 15 books, worked for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967 and been on television for 40 years. While his memoir Life Itself covers every major moment in Ebert's life, it is more than anything an example of why he has become such a preeminent cultural voice.
On the set of the show, between actually taping segments, we had a rule that there could be no discussion of the movies under review. So we attacked each other with one-liners. Buzz Hannan, our floor director, was our straight man, and the cameramen supplied our audience. For example:
Me: "Don't you think you went a little over the top in that last review?"
Gene: "Spoken like the gifted Haystacks Calhoun tribute artist that you are."
"Haystacks was loved by his fans as a charming country boy."
"Six hundred and forty pounds of rompin' stompin' charm. Oh, Rog? Are those two-tone suedes, or did you step in some chicken shit?"
"You can borrow them whenever you wear your white John Travolta disco suit from Saturday Night Fever."
Buzz: "Yeah, when are you gonna wear it on the show?"
"He wanted to wear it today, but it's still at the tailor shop having the crotch taken in."
Buzz: "Ba-ba-ba-boom !"
Will you be reading Ebert's memoir when it comes out in September?