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Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie vs. The Godfather by Mario Puzo

December 22, 2011

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie 

IT’S OKAY TO ADMIT A BOOK IS BORING. 

C’mon, professional reviewers, admit it!  You thought the first 100 pages of Catherine the Great were boring.  You probably won’t because to admit that you were bored would make you look shallow, but it’s better to be shallow than a liar (it’s really bad to be both), so be honest about it. 

It’s not the author’s fault.  Catherine the Great’s life for a long time was boring.  Even Catherine the Great was bored with her life for a long time.  When you’re writing about somebody who had a boring phase in life, it’s difficult to make that boring time period interesting.  However, once the boring part of Catherine the Great’s life is over, the biography gets much more interesting. 

ROBERT AND CATHERINE SITTING IN A TREE!

K-I-S-S-I-N-G! 

I kind of get the feeling that the author Robert K. Massie likes Catherine the Great a little too much.  He dismisses bad intentions for some of the more controversial decisions or events of her reign.  When Peter and Ivan were murdered, Massie theorizes that Catherine hadn’t planned for them (the murders) to happen.  Um, okay.  When Catherine forces a former lover to become a political pawn against his will, Massie has no analysis of Catherine’s personality to explain this.  When Catherine intentionally starts a (what would now be called an illegal) war with Turkey, it is all told as matter of fact.  The only real insight into Catherine’s motivations was when Catherine chose to do nothing (or little) to help the serfs in Russia. 

The tragedy (too strong a word) is that Catherine the Great would have no interest in Robert K. Massie.  She might recognize him as a notable biographer and send him some complimentary letters that discuss philosophy, but she would never take him for a lover.  She preferred strong men, nice looking (by 18th century Russian standards), and accomplished.  Massie’s admiration for Catherine would have to have been from a distance.  Since Massie has no chance with Catherine (even if we forget that she died a couple hundred years ago), he should have felt more comfortable to analyze (and maybe criticize) her actions more freely. 

Maybe the author offers his criticism or analysis at the end of the book, and I just haven’t gotten there yet. 

Uh oh.  I think I just admitted I haven’t finished reading this book yet. 

REVIEWING BOOKS I HAVEN’T FINISHED 

I intend on finishing Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.  It’s about 650 pages long, and I rarely read books over 500 pages anymore, so the fact that I want to finish it is an endorsement (kind of).  I’ve got other things to read, so I’m taking a break. 

This is nothing new.  I have reviewed books that I’ve barely begun, such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63.  I once even reviewed a book before it was published (Ann Coulter’s Demonic, which I have since read and actually finished, so I probably should update the review, but nobody reads that review anymore, so I probably won’t update it). 

THE REAL REASON TO READ CATHERINE THE GREAT 

The names are easy to follow.  The main characters have names like Sophia (later Catherine), Elizabeth, Peter (more than one), Ivan, and Gregory (more than one).  Yeah, when you throw in their long Russian last names, it can get a bit complicated, but I’ve managed to keep track, and I’m a guy who won’t read War and Peace because of the long Russian names, so this stuff is important. 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo 

WHY READ THE GODFATHER

Most people who would be interested in reading The Godfather have already seen the movie(s), probably several times.  Why would you waste several days reading a long novel when you’ve already spent several hours watching the movie version?  That’s easy.  The novel is very well-written, fast paced (with a couple exceptions), and gives the reader waaaaayyyy more information about a lot of characters that were barely seen in the movies.  Even main characters like Sonny, Tom Hagen, and Kay Adams are developed more in the book. 

Also, the book was written/published before the movies, so it’s fun to see how the filmmakers interpreted the novel rather than getting mad at some hack novelist for taking a screenplay and filling in the details.  If you’re a fanatic of The Godfather  who watches the movies every time some cable channel shows them (usually butchering them with bad editing and far too many commercials), this book is the best fix, much better than giving in and watching The Godfather 3

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE GODFATHER (the movies)? 

The Godfather gave us a (kind of) subtle performance from Al Pacino as a gangster, which in turn led to an overacting Al Pacino as another gangster in Scarface, which in turn led to lots and lots of movies where Al Pacino overacted.  Even worse than Al Pacino’s overacting is the praise he gets for his overacting.  If not for The Godfather, the cycle of Al Pacino’s cheesy, outlandish overacting may have never begun, and the world may have been a better place. 

WHY COMPARE THESE TWO BOOKS? 

Both title characters start off as (possibly) well-intentioned before they assume their positions of power.  Michael Corleone of The Godfather seems to want no part of the family “business” at first but then must commit acts of evil (and rationalize them) as he takes control of the family.  Catherine the Great at first claimed to embrace the idea of an “enlightened monarch” and then made a bunch of decisions that the “enlightened” should have found appalling.  Both Michael Corleone and Catherine the Great found ways to justify these decisions, and the authors found ways to get some readers to sympathize with them. 

WHICH ONE?  CATHERINE THE GREAT or THE GODFATHER? 

If you want to learn about Russian history (and don’t know much already), read Catherine the Great.  If you want to be entertained by some light, low-brow fiction, then read The Godfather.  If you really can’t decide for yourself (both Catherine the Great and Michael Corleone would despise you for your indecisiveness), then read The Godfather.  You can never go wrong with reading The Godfather.

3 Comments
  1. Loved the godfather! Hopefully Cathirne will turn out to be as great as they claim…

  2. To be honest, I felt that the most interesting and fun part of Catherine the Great was the first 100 pages. Sophia’s mother, Johanna is insane. It’s awesome to see just how evil stepmother that woman can get. Robert is a mess, and Elizabeth makes a good accidental adverssary. The whole thing feels like a Russian fairy tale.

    As the book wore on, however, it began to drag for me. Conversations with Enlightment authors and battles will always catch my interest. A litany of love affairs, building libraries and commitioning artwork? Less so. It was worth reading… I just think it was better story before it dragged into the reality of running an Empire.

    That said, maybe our experiences were different because we used two different forms of media? I borrowed the books on CD from my local library (and, geez, it took a couple of months to get those suckers). The reader was rather good. Maybe he had the voices and the energy right for the first part, which had a more straightforward narrative and could be thought of as a sort of radio play? Perhaps the first 100 pages dragged because it was the same material over and over again, but read from a different perspective… which works when it’s being read to you, but not when you’re reading it, since you have a natural inclination in the back of your head to skip reading past things you’ve figured out for yourself, but yet you’re still slogging through the material because your afraid you’re going to miss something? I couldn’t say.

  3. John T. permalink

    Massie’s Catherine is notonly boring, it’s a fraud!! He can’t even read Russian and hs lost his marbles at 82!! See my critical evaluation in
    slavic
    review (
    Spring 2013), pp. 162-63.
    the enthusiastic reviews by amateurs are smply sickening!! Even Massie’s ex-wife,
    suzanne, says he stole from her for Nicholas and
    alexadra! That should tell you what a wonderful author he is@@ Jatalex@ku.edu

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