A Year of Themed Reviews – July: Breaking Barriers: No Place for a Lady by Barbara Hodgson

No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women TravellersNo Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travellers by Barbara Hodgson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Covering the mid-seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, Hodgson’s work introduces us to the women who made a name for themselves travelling the world. It’s divided by country, so rather than really getting to know the individual women, you see a kaleidoscope of perspectives on each country before moving on to the next. Which can be interesting. But it also becomes a superficial overview of the ground-breaking women who were opening up the world as a place that women were capable of exploring. It could be a good introduction to travel history, but there’s not really enough information for it to stand by itself. Furthermore, the writing leaves something to be desired. It’s lackluster and very basic and not at all the caliber I was expecting from a book where every leaf of paper is thick and glossy as a magazine. This is a book that feels like it’s going to be college-course-caliber reading, but turns out to be a mass market paperback experience.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent MillaySavage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a force of nature and Nancy Milford writes like one. Seldom do I finish a book and find that not a word of praise said about it has been exaggerated. Milford reveals so wholly the life and person of Millay in this compelling, insightful biography it is as if we were childhood friends of Millay’s looking over our own memories. Starting with Millay’s poverty-stricken childhood caring for her two sisters while their single mother worked as a travelling nurse, to her bisexual, sexually free adulthood decades before the free-love sixties, the stratospheric heights of renown she and her writing achieved, her later addiction to alcohol, morphine, and other drugs and the havoc wrecked on her life by those addictions, Milford shies from no dark corner. But it’s not all sex and addiction. Millay demonstrated in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, men accused of taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and sentenced to death for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. She refused awards proffered her by prestigious Literary groups, if they refused on the grounds of “moral failings” to honor her accomplished female friends. (For of course, male poets weren’t held to this standard; a male poet could abandon his wife and run off with another woman and provided his poetry was good enough no one would flicker an eyelash.) She spoke out exhaustingly against American isolationism as Hitler’s thugs vomited atrocities in Europe, sacrificing her health and personal standards to write what she believed was desperately needed propaganda in favour of America entering the war:

“If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” (452)

She stood up for what she believed in. She was passionate about everything she loved. She loved wildly and widely. Savage Beauty is an incredible book about an incredible woman. An inestimable pleasure.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – June: Pride Month: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister ed. by Helena Whitbread

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries, 1791-1840 by Anne Lister
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*This is not the exact edition I read. My edition was 360 pages and only included 6 years of Anne’s diary.

Actually, let’s start off with that. Including the years of Anne’s birth and death suggested (to me) that this book was going to include the entirety of her diaries. I heard about Anne Lister from an episode of the wonderful Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which referenced I Know My Own Heart and made me determined to include it in June’s reviews honoring Pride month. Anne lived in early 1800’s England, helping her aunt and uncle run Shibden Hall and assuming its management entirely after their deaths in the 1820s. She was well-educated, flirtatious, and sassy. Anne wrote frankly about being attracted exclusively to women – she doesn’t use the word lesbian and I believe her diaries predate the inclusion of that word in the lexicon – and had many romantic and sexual relationships. In her later years she, and the lifelong companion she finally found, travelled extensively until Anne’s death from fever at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains. The travel portion of her life especially piqued my interest. I was decidedly non-plussed to discover the edition I had borrowed ended before she was able to indulge her wanderlust. There’s even a note saying the diaries from that part of her life “are beyond the scope of this book.” WHY? ARE YOU PUBLISHING A SEQUEL?? (Apparently not?) Furthermore, language has evolved somewhat since the 1800’s. Anne’s word choices and sentence structure are often baffling. There aren’t really enough footnotes to make her writing completely accessible to a modern reader. Though Anne’s handwriting is often unintelligible when she’s not writing in code so I can only imagine what the editors went through to make even a small portion of her diaries readable. For which they have my gratitude. This was an interesting snap shot into the minutiae of an interesting woman’s life, but if you are going to pick it up see if you can find a copy that includes a larger portion of her life and has more foot notes.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn BirdsThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took three hundred pages before I started to enjoy this book, but I wound up being glad I persevered. The Thorn Birds follows the wool-farming Cleary family as they emigrate from beautiful, lush New Zealand to the dry, harsh climate of New South Wales when patriarch Paddy Cleary, his wife Fiona, and their six children – eight after twin boys are added – are invited by Paddy’s wealthy sister Mary Carson to live and work as head stockman on her massive sheep ranch, Drogheda. While their monetary woes mostly end with the steady paychecks from Mary and the stability of a well-planned, well-run ranch, their lives, especially the lives of Meggie and her mother Fiona, are filled with the endless private griefs and innumerable hardships of ranching life in the early 1900’s. The Thorn Birds also follows the life of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Gillanbone district Catholic priest. From the moment they meet, Ralph and Meggie are bound to one another. But Ralph’s heart and ambition are sworn to the Church and to his God, and they allow no competition. The battles of pride, love, land, and faith are beautifully described in this powerful, sometimes crushing story that spans half a century and still resonates today.

However, it wasn’t perfect. Readers should be aware that this book has the racism and racial epithets and the sexism of its setting. While leaving out the sexism inherent in the structure of the society at the time the book is set would have been a mistake, I think the racism and especially the slurs could have been left out entirely. And should have. There are a few death scenes. Written from the point of view of the dying, they can be graphic and distressing, as can the very realistically portrayed grief of the survivors. There was also a chapter where I was concerned this was going to turn into an Australian Lolita. Fortunately, that does not happen, but readers sensitive to that may struggle with the undertones in the beginning of the book. This is why it took 300 pages before I started to enjoy it. McCullough seems to sexualize Meggie in her attempt to convey the power of Meggie’s unusual looks and while Ralph and Meggie’s relationship is meant to transcend the normal barriers of age and time, there are points where his adoration of a child, no matter how deep the dialogue between their souls, barely misses creepy and definitely isn’t helped by the revelation of decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church. I would like to reiterate that nothing inappropriate happens and as Meggie enters adulthood that unease vanishes, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Last but not least, because the sexism of the time so heavily influenced sexual relationships there are some interactions which are clearly assault. They are varying shades of horrifying and cavalier and the difference is obviously down to what was considered assault in the 1970s. Our changing sexual mores put a different spin on them. As they do for any sex scene first conceived over forty years ago. I think The Thorn Birds continues to hold up well despite these issues. If you want to tackle an epic, it’s worth a look.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among GhostsThe Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

The Refrigerator MonologuesThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The unhappy ending to every story ever written. Because this time we are talking about the women who’ve been refrigerated, a term coined by Gail Simone to refer to the trope of destroying a female comic book character to further the plot-line of the male protagonist; which started a discussion about how when “bad things” happen to male superheros they are frequently returned to their original status but female superheroes are not, and about how women characters are being used as plot devices for male protagonists instead of fully-rounded characters in their own right. Valente has created a book where we finally hear these women telling their own stories. She weaves all of these tropes, all of these classic deaths, into new tales and has the woman tell her own story, about her dreams and aspirations and wants and rage over being demoted from the protagonist in her own story to the supporting cast in someone else’s. At being “food for a super hero.” (144)

Comes with the a milder dose of the standard selection of comic book violence: murders, mentions of rape, abuse, and assault, and the death of a child.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Alice NetworkThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair finds herself momentarily unattended by her mother as they dock for an overnight stay in England on their way to a clinic in Switzerland at the end of World War II, she seizes the moment and her freedom and boards a taxi for 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. It’s the address of one Evelyn Gardiner, the last person to have information on the whereabouts of Charlie’s beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared while in France during the Second World War. Eve was part of a network of female spies embedded in German occupied France during the first world war, feeding tidbits of information to British brass and trying their best to turn the tide of the war. Now she lives alone in London, trying to drown her nightmares and bitterness in alcohol. Charlie succeeds in persuading Eve to help find Rose and the two of them set off for France. Quinn alternates chapters; one narrated by Charlie and set in 1947 will be followed by one narrated by Eve and set in 1915. It’s very well constructed and not difficult to keep track of the plot despite bouncing around in both time and space. There won’t be time for you to forget what happened in the previous chapter, because you won’t want to put this book down until you’ve turned the very last page. Quinn has crafted an enthralling, fictionalized account of the real-world, women-run spy network that existed during World War I, with just enough romance and intrigue stirred in to lighten the darkness of the wartime passages. It’s a great book.

Sensitive readers should be aware that there are instances of violence, torture, mentions of rape and coercive sex, slut shaming, abortion, drug use, and gun violence.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – February: Black History, & March: Women’s History: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History Month: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color PurpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An incredible book. Walker has crafted a heart-breaking, heart-filling story that captivates you from first page to last. Despite assaults and abuse from parents and husband, Celie stands “bloody, but unbowed” throughout her childhood, unwanted marriage, and finally sees the slow growth of her own heart from a forgotten seed into a magnificent tree. Despite this being a story built around child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and the millions of everyday griefs that filled a black woman’s life in the early 1900’s, Walker has presented us with a work is not just uplifting, but redemptive. If you are in a place where you are able to read books that deal with the content warnings I’ve listed, then I can not recommend The Color Purple strongly enough.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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