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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.