Bookish – In Which I Offer Mini Reviews for Many Books

Nobody reads my book reviews anyway, so I figure it’s totally okay if I cheat and pile a bunch into one post. I just want a place to record everything I’ve read because otherwise I’ll pick up the same title five years from now and read it again, and seriously, there are too many books to read, I’m not reading something twice unless it changes my life in some way.

So here’s what I’ve been reading lately…

Crow Winter
Karen McBride
This novel about a young Anishinaabe woman returning to her family home after the death of her father reads more like a young adult novel with traditional characters from the spirit world coming to life to help her come to terms with her loss and save her community. Beautiful artwork throughout by the author. A good entry point for readers of colonial descent to learn more about First Nations culture.

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May Reading List

This month’s inadvertent theme is “all the British ladies”, as my Top 3 picks (pictured above) are all about British women. There’s the Tudor-era feminist who had to hide her work behind a man’s name, the fictional suffragettes who find themselves at loose ends once they achieve voting parity for women, and the five women whose lives were lost to Victorian-era morals that gave them few options to support themselves and their children. They’re all owed big respect for their work and their sacrifices.

How to Be Alone
Lane Moore
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.

Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris
A. J. Leibling
Leibling, one of the most under-appreciated food writers of the 20th century, spent time in Paris in 1927, 1939, 1944 and again in the 1950s. While his gluttonous (let’s be honest) appetite affected his health, he had such a distinct understanding for food, especially French food, that he must be considered an expert on the subject. This book does spend a lot of time bemoaning lost Parisian restaurants and condemning people, both chefs and diners, who don’t understand French cuisine, but in the 1950s Leibling predicted the end of the world’s love affair with French food before food writers such as Child, Fisher and Beard had any clue it was happening.

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times
Irshad Manji
I’ve been a fan of Manji since her time in Toronto hosting Queer TV, and this book, while stylistically sometimes hard to get into, delves into how all sides of the political spectrum need to spend more time listening to each other and less time trying to prove they’re right. The book is written as a conversation between Manji and her dog, Lily, and this can sometimes come off as patronizing. Also, in some chapters, the dog talks back (yes, really) and this is weirdly disconcerting, as if two drafts of the manuscript have been pieced together. Still worth reading (and re-reading) though, because Manji offers such a balanced perspective. She’s also got no patience with social justice warriors or folks who proclaim themselves “woke”, which makes this book a winner in my eyes.

Habits of a Happy Brain
Loretta Graziano Breuning
I’m more than a little interested in neuroplasticity and Breuning explores how the brain creates and uses chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin and endorphin, as well as the not so happy chemical of cortisol. The explanations are a little basic, however, and the habits to create bursts of the good chemicals (and be happy) are a bit trite. We’re not happy all the time and are not meant to be, and ours brains create these chemicals anyway, without us do anything special to make more of them.

Social Creature
Tara Isabella Burton
The trope here is one we all know; two friends move in together, one takes over the other’s life. It’s Single White Female, or The Other Typist(see review above). Only in this case, the protagonist is the ultimate anti-hero, and by the end of the book, the reader is unsure who is the most messed up, Lavinia, the rich and manic narcissist, or Louise the roommate who kills her and uses social media to pretend her friend is alive and well in order to live in her house and have access to her bank account and credit cards. This is written in a weird, choppy style that jumps in tone and the author drops so many red herrings that it starts to stink after a while. “And that’s when Louise really fucked up…” Except there’s never any reckoning with the action. A snarky look at New York’s literary/party scene with characters that are maybe too close to caricatures. A fun read, all the same, but a bit of an eye roller.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays
John Hudson
There’s long been speculation that Willy Shakes never wrote a word of any of the plays or poems that bear his name and factual evidence (at the time of his death, he owned no books, no paper, even unused, and no copies of his past works) seems to support this. But who did? John Hudson offers a long, somewhat detailed theory that it was a woman of Jewish Italian descent named Amelia Bassano. Bassano ticks all the boxes in terms of the life experience and knowledge the playwright would have to have had: knew Italian, Hebrew and Latin, knew music and instrument making, knew court life, including many events and in-jokes, knew Denmark and Venetian culture and geography, knew about the military, the law, housewifery, falconry (yes, really), and was a feminist. Hudson even compares stylistic aspects of Bassano’s writing under her own name with that of Shakespeare and believes that the same person wrote the works of both. Oh, and that many of the works are satirical commentary on Christianity. If nothing else, the fact that the person spelled his name differently on all legal documents and that “Shakespeare” would have been a Tudor-era pun for masturbation should give cause for doubt.

Old Baggage
Lissa Evans
This is the prequel to Crooked Heart, although it was written after. By 1928, the original suffragettes were hitting middle age or older and were struggling to find their place in the world as Britain prepared to extend the vote to all women, not just those who owned land or were married. Mattie and Flea (Florrie) live in a world where their former bravery and glory is unappreciated. Taking local girls under their wing in a club centred on Hampstead Heath, the women have a distinct perspective on the changing social climate. This book has been optioned for a TV series by the company run by actors Joanna Scanlon and Vicki Peppardine and I am so excited for this series that I cannot contain my glee. Written more as a series of vignettes than having one major plot arc, I think this will translate to the screen incredibly well.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Polly, Annie, Eliza, Kate, Mary Jane. Their names have often been forgotten in the 130 years since Jack the Ripper took their lives, especially since the murderer was never caught (recent investigations using modern forensic evidence point to Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who lived in Whitechapel and suffered from severe mental health issues, including a violent attitude towards women). Rubenhold stays well away from Ripper speculation, and does not include details of the murders. Instead she uses census data along with inquest documentation to develop pictures of all five women’s lives prior to their deaths, including births, deaths, marriages, siblings, schooling, stints at workhouses, hospitals and sanitariums. She discovers that all women were reasonably well-educated (all could read and write), but that Victorian-era constraints and attitudes towards women put all five victims in situations of poverty where they turned to alcoholism to get through life. The background on Mary Jane Kelly is somewhat spotty, as her real name was unknown (she was supposedly on the run from white slave traders) and so her chapter is based mostly on inquest statements and newspaper interviews with people who knew her. Surprisingly, Rubenhold’s research shows that only two of the women worked as prostitutes, and that all except Kelly were known to “sleep rough”, putting them on the streets, asleep, when they were murdered. An important book that reminds us that our fascination with serial killers often erases the victims, and that women were (and often still are) treated unfairly in the domestic sphere.

Check out all the books I’ve read in 2019 here.

April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.

Book Review — Shrewed

Shrewed
Elizabeth Renzetti

Aw dudes, I suck so much at keeping my 2018 reading list up to date, mostly because it’s all food books and cookbooks (not all of them good, either!), but I want to mention this book somewhere that people see it (because while I seldom update here, this blog still gets a pile o’ hits every day… who are you people?!).

Anyway, Shrewed by Elizabeth Renzetti is a delightful collection of thoughtful, provocative essays on feminism that addresses real issues without wandering into the realm of self-pity or “social justice warrior” territory. “You’ll Pay For Those Breasts, or The Cost of Being a Lady” lays out the financial burden women face trying to meet the expectations of what society deems “attractive” and how it fucks with our heads. In an essay in the form of a letter to her daughter, Renzetti casts (warranted) aspersions on weddings and the whole wedding industry, and “Four Lions” recounts interviews Renzetti did with Germaine Greer, P. D. James, Hilary Mantel, and Setsuko Thurlow.

This is a great collection that speaks to women’s fear, frustration and anxiety. Recommended.

She Ain’t So Sweet: Book Review – Rejected Princesses

Rejected Princesses
Jason Porath

The premise – all the women in history who would never in a million years have a Disney movie made about their (real) life exploits. The gals whose work was ignored, overlooked or stolen, or those ladies who kicked ass, fought tooth and nail and severed some heads. You know, like Boudica or Elizabeth Bathory.

Porath does extensive research on each woman he covers, and he manages to find historical women from all over the globe. Each entry includes a graphic (the project started when he was an animator at DreamWorks), a fun and witty bio of the gal’s exploits, and some entries include notes on the artwork (ie. why Boudica is dressed that way, who are the people in the background, etc).

While Rejected Princess might seem like an inspirational book for girls, readers should be forewarned, these ladies would never get the “princess treatment” (have a blockbuster movie made about their life) for a reason. Many of them are inspiration but maybe kind of boring (Ada Lovelace), and some of them are just straight up evil (Elizabeth Bathory… but wait, Porath reveals that she probably wasn’t as evil as she’s been made out to be.) Porath is good enough to give each entry a maturity rating, so if you are reading this book with your kids, you can choose what level to stop at. He also flags each entry with other details such as abuse, sex, violence, etc.

This is a super fun collection that makes it clear that women in history were not all demure sweetness. They often fought for what was rightfully theirs, outshone their male peers at many endeavours, and could even be violent terrorists.

Porath has a huge but easy to navigate website that is updated regularly, and which includes many of the entries from the book (a heavy tome with over 100 bios), but also many that aren’t; a search function to find your favourite rejected princess, and an extensive shop with everything from shirts to phone cases to calendars. He’s apparently got a backlog of women to write about, but there’s a place to make suggestions, and a fun FAQ page where he explains his decision to include women with violent histories as well as the good girls who are more inspiring.

This is a great book, perfect for not only your favourite badass gal, but for any lady person (okay, really for anybody… guys need to see women kicking ass, too) over the age of 12.

 

Book Review – The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante

It’s January and with this chilly month comes the typical list of resolutions, including the one to read more. I don’t necessarily want to read more, but I do want to keep better track of what I’m reading. I have a tendency to not bother writing about books that I don’t care much for, but in truth, I can learn as much about life (and writing) from books I dislike as those that I enjoy. I’m also getting a jump on the book a week goal by counting books 3 and 4 of he Neapolitan Quartet as my first two books of 2017.

Recently I was headed to the library to return book 3 (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), and pick up book 4 (The Story of the Lost Child), when a neighbour stopped me to ask if I was enjoying the series. They’re intense, I replied. She was concerned about finding time to sit down and read any quantity of the book with two small children around, and at first I suggested that she find herself some “me time”. But in fact, I almost have begun to think that these books are best read only a few pages at a time.

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Book Review – Four Great Books About Strong, Amazing Women

lilacgirlsNot by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.

The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.

As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.

Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.

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The Not So Secret (And Actually Overtly Sexual) History of Wonder Woman

lepore_wonder_woman_coverAt the Toronto book signing for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a guy at the back of the room got up during the Q&A section and asked an elaborate question about a specific story in a specific issue of the comic. Before Lepore could reply, another audience member stood up, vehemently yelled, “I disagree!” and the two began to argue about the plot while Lepore looked vaguely terrified. Fortunately, moderator Nathalie Atkinson (a culture writer for The Globe and Mail who happens to be married to the owner of a comic shop; one can guess she’s witnessed such an exchange more than once in her life) shut down the argument quickly and expertly, allowing Lepore to reiterate a point she had made earlier in her presentation – she is a historian, not a comic expert and her book was written from that perspective.

This is a good thing to remember when looking at The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Wonder Woman – Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky. Berlatsky is the editor of a (mostly) comic-oriented blog called The Hooded Utilitarian. As such he comes at the story of Wonder Woman and her creator William Moulton Marston from a completely different perspective than Lepore. Which is why the two books work together so well to tell Marston’s story.

In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is really the secret history of Marston, documenting his early life, his promising beginnings at Harvard where he earned degrees in both psychology and law, his marriage to Elizabeth Holloway and his subsequent relationship with his student/assistant Olive Byrne, who came to live with Marston and Holloway in a long-term poly-amorous relationship, giving birth to two children with him while also caring for his children with Holloway. Also important is the fact that Byrne’s family had a great effect on Marston – she was the niece of reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, someone who Marston greatly admired. Lepore doesn’t even get to talking about Wonder Woman until page 180.

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The Feminists Are Coming – And They Have Cupcakes

When I think of “feminism”, Nigella Lawson doesn’t really come to mind.

Not because I don’t think that she’s a strong woman, in control of her own career and destiny, but because the stereotypes that she plays to use a certain kind of femininity that puts women barefoot and back in the kitchen.

Most of the female chefs I know have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be taken seriously. Women who opt to make pastry for a living – whether because they genuinely enjoy it or because the hours and physical demands are easier – are considered cop outs. It’s utterly unfair, but it’s still a stupid stereotype of the industry. And even the women who do choose to make pastry for a living do so in a professional context – wearing a proper uniform, hair tied back, back and neck and shoulders aching at the end of a day bent over a cake doing hours of icing work.

Nigella sets these ladies back, if we want to be honest about it. Because even if she IS running her own empire and selling lots of books… she creates a stereotype of a woman and a bowl of frosting that the rest of us all have to live down (or up to, depending on how insecure you are). Nigella causes people to assume that real pastry chefs flit around sticking their fingers in the bowl, making sexy face as they test their new products. And for the home cook, Nigella creates food porn aspirations that can never be achieved, causing men to wonder why their wives and girlfriends don’t wear sexy sweaters over tight-laced corsets while they bake cupcakes (yes, Nigella, we can tell you’re wearing a corset… come on honey, let that belly hang out!), and causing women to compare themselves unfavourably to someone with a team of assistants that undoubtedly not only includes photographers and food stylists but hair and make-up people as well.

I’m not saying that you can’t be a pretty feminist. I’m not saying that feminists shouldn’t bake. Hell, I’m not even saying that feminists can’t/shouldn’t own their sexuality and use it to get ahead. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that Nigella posing with a bowl of batter and a tight sweater actually helps move the cause forward at all, okay? That’s she’s out there representing all the women trying to break free of the sexist stereotypes. And let’s really not pretend that real female pastry chefs don’t cringe when her name comes up because of the imagery she employs to sell some cookbooks.