Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov
I’ve only read one other short stories collection by Asimov before, so this bunch of previously uncollected stories probably wasn’t a great place to start for a relative Asimov beginner. The stories are rather hit-and-miss; there’s a couple which are more like sci-fi jokes culminating with rather unfunny puns; while others are really good, like the first story in the collection called Cal, about a domestic robot who wants to be a writer just like his master.
Far more interesting was the second half of the book, which is a collection of Asimov’s essays, taken from various anthologies he edited or introductions to his own work. In them he muses on all sorts of things to do with writing and/or science fiction: his own creative process, the women in science fiction, the relationship between sci-fi and real-life science, the possibilities of space travel, his opinion of the book reviews, his view of dystopian genre (apparently he found George Orwell’s Animal Farm an abominably bad book, because in his view dystopian stories which do nothing but repeat how awful everything is are just as dull as utopian stories in which everything is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful), among others.
I was also interested to read that he was a big fan of P. G. Wodehouse, because to me the story-within-the-story in Cal definitely seemed to channel Wodehouse a bit. Again, some essays were more interesting than others, but what really endeared me to them was Asimov’s down-to-earth, familial style of writing, personal charm and (often self-deprecating) humour that really shine through.
Napoleon: His Wives and Women
This historical biography was in a way a polar opposite to the recent one I’ve read; if Caesar’s biography was all politics and military achievements and very little on the personal side, this one was all personal. It still gives you a general outline of Napoleon’s rise and fall, but you won’t find detailed analysis of the crucial battles or descriptions of Napoleon’s political life. Instead, as the title suggests, this biography concentrates on Napoleon’s relationships with the women in his life: his strong-willed mother, who outlived him and many of his siblings, his sisters, his many mistresses, and his two wives: Marie-Josephe-Rose who he was to call Josephine, and Marie-Louise of Austria.
The book then is rather gossipy by nature, but wonderfully entertaining to read, with tons of personal anecdotes, details and descriptions of Napoleon’s family life, and his own habits and character quirks. His portrayal here as a private man is often far from flattering; he was capable of great personal charm and acts of love and devotion, but he could also be selfish, domineering, cruel, petty and crude. He had a nasty habit of pinching the members of his family and servants, sometimes so hard as to leave bruises. Naturally one must take into account the times Napoleon lived in, but all the same it’s hard not to wince when you read of him referring to women as ‘mere machines for making children’.
Despite all of this, he really seemed to inspire devotion on the part of both of his wives, even though neither of them married him for love initially, which depending on your view is either romantic or depressing. Still, it was hard not to be moved by the scenes of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce, which by all accounts was harsh on both of them and was mostly motivated by Napoleon’s desire for an heir that Josephine could not give him. Very late in the biography, it also briefly touches on Napoleon’s possible homosexual tendencies, which I kinda wondered about since the earlier episode in the book, where he remarked that, had Tsar Alexander of Russia been a woman, he would have made him his mistress, he was so pretty.