After a dry spell with fiction that was only temporarily improved when I pulled out E.R. Burrough’s A Princess of Mars after seeing the “John Carter” movie, I’ve hit the jackpot with every book I’ve picked up over the last week.
First up, because I was really naughty at the Air and Space Annex gift shop: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. The loss of Pluto has always annoyed me. When I was a kid I walked ten miles to school. Uphill. In five feet of snow. Both ways. And we had nine planets. The model I made in elementary school, assembled out of a bike wheel with painted styrofoam balls attached to the spokes, was lovely, deserving of an A, and perfectly represented that nine planet system.
I was good with the discovery of more moons, and really good with the discovery that Saturn isn't the only planet with rings. But then, just as it looked like they were going to ADD a planet to the system, Pluto got downgraded to a dwarf planet, which isn't really a planet at all, just a large object in the Kuiper Belt. Bleah.
I was seriously bummed. Haven't got over it, either. But I'm feeling forgiving now. Mike Brown tells the tale of how he found planets beyond Pluto and then worked to have Pluto and those planets stripped of planet status, mixing the science with the story of a man who was passionately searching the solar system and making historic discoveries at the same time as he was falling in love, getting married, becoming a first time father. Note to sleep deprived new parents - don't keep the powdered laundry detergent and the clumping cat litter sitting next to each other in the laundry room. Popular science, clearly and humorously presented.
Then I jumped back 2,000 years to Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff. Turns out the cover picture for the book is perfect:
What we think we know about this last of the pharaohs, the Ptolemaic ruler who mostly is known for romancing both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, is, at best, minimal, and a popular creation more based on Shakespeare and Shaw than the real woman. The last of the Greek rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra reigned longer than Alexander the Great did. She demonstrated her appreciation for Ptolemaic tradition by marrying and eventually assassinating her brother, as well as removing other siblings who stood in her way. The Ptolemies, it seems, could make the Borgias look like good guys.
She did try to consolidate her power through an affair with an aging Caesar, which produced the male heir Caesar's marriage didn't. That didn't bring her the guarantees she hoped for.
The descriptions of Alexandria at its height, of the court, of traditions and rituals, and of world politics are fascinating and well drawn. And all this plucked off the shelf at the local Good Will store.
Then there's my current read by Janet Wallach: Desert Queen.
Gertrude Bell - Victorian woman, explorer, adventurer, passionate Arabist, friend to Lawrence of Arabia, major force behind the redrawing of the national borders of the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. She traveled where the Turkish authorities were afraid to go, smuggling her rifle past border guards by wrapping it in her petticoats, the ammunition hidden in her boots. When she wasn't climbing Swiss peaks.
Amazing woman, but driven by loneliness, suffering the tragedies of lost loves, filling up the silence in order to keep the pain out. This is an incredible look at the Middle East 100 years ago as well as the story of an utterly fascinating woman whom Bedouin sheiks welcomed to their fires and called a queen.