East of Paris Bookstore

Monday, January 9, 2012

What We're Reading Now

With the coming of the New Year, the media and blogosphere is abuzz with posts about resolutions, goals and dreams. I keep reading blogs and articles that recommend thinking about our 2011 inventory of activities and planning for 2012.  Well I have some plans and dreams and, dare I say it, "resolutions." And, since I'm an Orthodox Christian, who follows the Julian or "Old" Calendar, technically I get two more weeks to select my resolutions and to commit to them. So, my test will start on January 14th. What will I chose and will I then chose to do it?

The choice of resolutions or, rather, how to live one's life, is in tune with the two books I've been reading these last few weeks.

Your Are Your Choices by Alexandra Stoddard consists of 50 short essays exploring what it means to live the "good life ... a life well-lived, the happy life." According to Aristotle (a favorite philosopher of Stoddard's) the "good life is a life of moral excellence that leads to happiness." She shows by example how we are where we are due to external things occurrences coupled with our reaction to them.  Our reactions are either wise or unwise, but we determine our reactions and they determine where we are and where we will go.  

Whether she is talking about the benefits of simple lifestyle rituals or about leaving our comfort zones, Stoddard sprinkles her essays with quotes from ancient philosophers, like Aristotle and Socrates, religious sages, like the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, enlightenment thinkers, like Emerson and Montaigne, and modern writers and scientists, like Camus and Einstein. However, the book does not come across as if its author just went to a big book of quotations and picked them at random.  Stoddard's talent lies in her knowledge of philosophy and her ability to tie high ideas to practical application in quotidian life.

I highly recommend Your Are Your Choices. It reminded me that I make choices every day and that even a non-choice is really a choice. It put the whole concept  of New Year's resolutions and life-plans in new perspective. To quote Stoddard quoting Socrates and Aristotle:  " An unexamined lied is not worth living," and " An unplanned life is not worth examining."

The Tigress of Forli by art historian Elizabeth Lev is a biography of Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici -- daring, courageous and vilified by her enemies,.  As a woman in Renaissance Italy, she had few choices as to whom to marry (at least the first time around) or the life she would lead. But,within her social confines, she made choices on a grand scale, fought (not always successfully) to preserve her children's inheritance, gambled against enemies (like Cesare Borgia), and lived and died on her own terms. Sometimes rich and sometimes poor, Caterina was always fearless. 

My favorite vignette from her story involves her ability to compartmentalize. While fighting (blood and guts not just arguments) over territory with a neighboring nobleman, Caterina took time to write to his wife about fashions and to ask for some of her famous hunting dogs, which she got.

Caterina was the Countess of Forli and Imola in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. This is a beautiful area with fabulous cuisine and is a short drive to Ravenna with its magnificent mosaics. If I have a chance to visit there again, I know I will now are a new appreciation for its history.

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