In Review – January 2017

2017-january

 

I’m not entirely sure how we’re already at the end of January (obviously, I know it’s the cycle of days but there must have been a few missing?)

January started the year well but it is also the month I started reading Anna Karenina and I have a feeling not much more will be read until mid to late February. I knew that reading classic literature and histories would slow me down this year and I’ve adjusted my Goodreads goal accordingly.

What can I say about this group of books?

Bleak House is simply superb. I adore Miss Summerson. Lady Deadlock is intriguing. Mr Guppy is a fawning fool and Mr Tulkinghorn is delightfully wicked. I know he’s essentially ‘the bad guy’ but I can’t help but like him. Dickens is a master of the craft – a book of this length, without all our modcons and phone apps, created entirely from his enormous brain and more than likely, copious notes. I am in awe of him that he managed to keep the narrative flowing and interesting and didn’t give the reader any information or instruction that wasn’t one hundred percent necessary.

One Day in France was interesting in a different way. Partly, I think, because it didn’t need to be an entire book. Jean-Marie Borzeix has written a fascinating family history of a town during WWII, however, it could really have been a slightly better edited essay in a history magazine or a journal. It felt like a stretch needing to have it produced as a book. This is in no way meant to detract from the story he tells. Those of us who are also keen on family history will share his excitement at meeting individuals connected to our own tree and also individuals connected to other trees you’ve been distracted by. It is truly a fascinating read.

The Simple Act of Reading is also falls into the ‘not necessarily an entire book’ category. The book is a series of short essays by Australian authors and describes the way they remember becoming a reader. Individually, their stories are fascinating. As a whole book, they’re a little monotonous. Had they appeared in a national magazine, newspaper or international blog site, it would have made more sense. I would recommend this book but it is one to dip in and out of, rather than consume in one sitting.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I still think about it now, nearly two or three weeks later. If you haven’t read it and want something a little creepy before bedtime, this is my recommendation.

Magna Carter by David Starkey was a random selection one weekend at the library. I had only gone in to return a couple of books but as usually happens, left with a few more finds in my bag. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Magna Carter, this is a great starting point. Starkey breaks the history of the document down to focus only on the period it was written in. He introduces you to King John and the rebel barons and links them to the Pope and France and makes the relevance of the document clear. I’m not convinced it’s as important as some historians make out but the world would be a very different place if we didn’t have it. The only problem with the book is that it feels as though the editing was rushed. There are sentences that suffer from strange structuring and a lack of punctuation. If you ignore this though, which on some pages is easier said than done, you’ll understand a period of English history a little better.

Average rating for the month 3.6

If This Is A Woman

If This Is A Woman

Publisher: Little Brown
Publication Date: 1 January 2015
Pages: 768

5 Stars

~~Language Warning~~

In May 1939 a Nazi internment camp, specially for women, was opened north of Berlin. The horror that ensued, covered in subtle but powerful and disturbing detail in Helm’s book, defy belief. Astonishingly, the camp, Ravensbrück, seems relatively unknown outside the world of holocaust historians. This is a shameful negation of the the tens of thousands who died here and at sub-camps.

As a woman, an anthropologist, a human, this work has left me speechless, horrified and changed. I want to risk using an escape clause I dislike seeing and that is people far smarter than me have commented and analysed this far better than I can or ever could. I’m not lying. This is true. The study of Nazi / WWII history is a subject many people spend their lives engaging with and only ever scratching the surface.

Some numbers:
– 5-6000 women executed in late 1944 when the SS regime realised they could not win.
– 30-50,000 who died from cold, starvation, beatings, poison and experiments
– 980 German concentration camps
– 30,000 slave labour camps
-500 brothels

Again, this is tip of the iceberg stuff.

If This Is A Woman has taken me two and a half weeks to read.

It has been harrowing and terrible. People watching me on the tube don’t need to think to hard on what it is I’m grimacing or looking angry over. The reactions are involuntary. Every story invokes a reaction. Be it disgust at the “medical procedures” or sympathy pains for the “rabbits”, be it a strange sort of patriotism for the women of the Red Army, be it the revulsion at descriptions of the mountains of bodies waiting to be incinerated, be it the strong feelings of disappointment when, at the last moment, a woman’s freedom is revoked.

Helm has witness testimony that shows the prisoners were wondering if the world knew of their suffering, wondering if anyone cared, wondering if they would ever be saved. Helm also has proof that the truth was suppressed at various levels because they believed civilians wouldn’t believe the reports. The people who decided to hide the truth and decided not to reveal what they knew of Ravensbrück were, in a way, right to do so.

Reading about the plight of these women now, in an environment that is quite sanitised to the horrors, I have to admit that there are moments I couldn’t believe something like this could have been perpetuated. It all seems more suited to a horror movie than real life. The barbarism is mind-blowing.

Even before I was 10 pages in I was wondering what kind of perfect storm occurred that such an enormous clusterfuck was the end result. Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Gebhardt, Oberheuser, Binz, Suhren, Koegel, Treite – again, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I do find disappointing from some of the “professional” reviews is the position taken, that If This Is A Woman is a feminist history of the Holocaust. I feel, far to often, a book about women is deemed feminist when there is no legitimate connection. Feminism may have allowed for a woman to write a book about women but this is hardly a text arguing a cause for women. A history book that focuses only on the role of men and excludes women – and we know their are thousands of them, are reviewed for their historical accuracy and the amount of work that has gone into the production of the finished product. Helm’s book, focusing on women, with an astonishing amount of research is now a feminist history. This double standard is ridiculous but it also steals the focus from the women of Ravensbrück.

I can’t help but think we could all learn something from Yevgenia Klemm, leader of the Red Army women – and if you don’t understand what I mean, then I recommend you find a copy of this book and discover just how amazing she is.

The Girl in the Photograph written by Kate Riordan [Review]

The Girl in the Photograph

Title: The Girl in the Photograph
Author: Kate Riordan
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Date of Publication: 15 January 2015
Number of Pages: 448
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), History

Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary:  In the summer of 1933, Alice Eveleigh has arrived at Fiercombe Manor in disgrace. The beautiful house becomes her sanctuary, a place to hide her shame from society in the care of the housekeeper, Mrs Jelphs. But the manor also becomes a place of suspicion, one of secrecy.

Something isn’t right.

Someone is watching.

There are secrets that the manor house seems determined to keep. Tragedy haunts the empty rooms and foreboding hangs heavy in the stifling heat. Traces of the previous occupant, Elizabeth Stanton, are everywhere and soon Alice discovers Elizabeth’s life eerily mirrors the path she herself is on.

Review:  The Girl in the Photograph is a nice, easy going read but one I feel, will be easily forgotten. I cannot pick a standout moment but I also cannot pick a weak moment. The story is well told and flows in a logical way, however, there are moments where it seems Riordan has played it safe both in the phrasing of her sentences and also in direction she wants the story to go. There isn’t really any part that takes a risk or makes you think wow. It all seems terribly pedestrian. The slowness of the story, however, in some ways, mimics the boredom of a long hot summer and the nine months spent waiting for a child to arrive.

By no means am I saying this is a bad book. If you enjoy Kate Morton you will like this novel. Think of it as Morton light. I cannot agree though, that this is in any way similar  to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I can see why they use this as a promotional line but other than the main character, Alice attempting to learn more about the previous mistress of Fiercombe Manor, there is no comparison.

The book suffers from being a little long winded. There is a lot of repetition that doesn’t progress the story. Alice is slightly one dimensional and dim. Elizabeth is far more interesting but isn’t given sufficient voice. The Girl in the Photograph may have worked better had the two women had their positions reversed. The opposing decades are also played down. The two women could have had their stories told at nearly any point during the the mid to late 19th century. There is also the question of the ending which is exactly what was expected and exactly what wasn’t wanted.

What The Girl in the Photograph does well though, is communicate the relationships between mothers and daughters – the things unspoken, the misunderstandings and the reconciliations. There is also a believability in the dialogue that a lot of historical novels miss. No modern linguistic phrases worked their way in.

In sum. An okay read but ultimately one I was glad to finish.

[Review] A Storm of Witchcraft written by Emerson Baker

A storm of witchcraft

Title: A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience
Author: Emerson Baker
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date of Publication: 6 October 2014
Number of Pages: 400

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Beginning in January 1692, Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. Villagers–mainly young women–suffered from unseen torments that caused them to writhe, shriek, and contort their bodies, complaining of pins stuck into their flesh and of being haunted by specters. Believing that they suffered from assaults by an invisible spirit, the community began a hunt to track down those responsible for the demonic work. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history.

Review: 
Emerson Baker, Professor of History and archaeological historian, has produced an anthropological work that delves into the human nature of the Salem witch trials. The text produced is ethnographic in nature because he focuses on the people, the way they interacted, their loyalties, and the various, conflicting forces exacting their toll on the settlements of the Massachusetts region. Baker takes the topic beyond the supernatural, beyond the ergot poisoning and into a psychological problem known now as “conversion disorder”. This is a new phenomenon to me and while it makes sense at one level, it lacks conviction when considered on a global scale. However, when considered as a partner to depression and anxiety, conversion disorder does take on a new face. I do not want to focus on this though.

A Storm of Witchcraft is not an easy book to read. Baker gives you the names and dates of the trials and expects you to keep up. Some parts were so dense it was almost impossible to get through. Other parts were fantastically interesting and could easily be called ‘light bulb’ moments.

It has taken me a long time to read this book. I won’t say it was a pleasure but it was certainly interesting. For anyone who is interested in the witch trials but only wants an easy to read taster, this book is not for you. Baker writes for an academic audience and is not afraid of intimidating (in a good way) his reader. I’m very glad I convinced myself to finish.

[Review] Thieving Forest written by Martha Conway

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Title: Thieving Forest
Author: Martha Conway
Publisher: Noontime Books
Date of Publication: 15 August 2014
Number of Pages: 416

Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: On a humid morning in 1806, seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner watches helplessly from behind a tree while a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna rashly decides to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman’s quest to save her sisters and the parallel story of her sisters’ new lives.

Over the next five months, Susanna tans hides in a Moravian missionary village; escapes down a river with a young native girl; discovers an eccentric white woman raising chickens in the middle of the Great Black Swamp; and becomes a servant in a Wyandot village longhouse. The man who loves her, Seth Spendlove, is in pursuit after he realizes that his father was involved in the kidnapping. Part Potawatomi himself but living a white man’s life, Seth unwittingly sets off on his own quest to reclaim his birthright. He allies himself with a Potawatomi named Koman, one of the band of men who originally abducted the Quiner sisters, but who now wishes to make his own retribution. Together they canoe through the Black Swamp and into enemy territory looking for Susanna, and while they travel Koman teaches Seth about their shared heritage.

Review: I cannot think where to start this review. I feel as though the wet, cold, greyness of the novel has invaded my brain and it means I can’t think straight. Some might think this is a good thing but I do not. Let me try and unpack my thoughts in a coherent way.

Nearly 100% of this book is told in the same heavy tone and confusing turn of phrase. The sentence structure is problematic and would have benefited from a few commas or, even better, some brutal editing. Learning to read Conway’s prose and meeting four female characters who were, essentially, the same person, made the initial 10% hard work. It never improved but you got use to it. Meera is the strongest character and Susanna is a close second. I don’t feel that Susanna developed much in the five months she is supposed to have trekked to save her sisters. In the end she was still self obsessed.

From my understanding of the Ohio region at the time, it seems Conway’s history is correct but she does seem to gloss over a lot of the finer points. Conway also skips giving readers any kind of timeline and other points of reference. Perhaps this is a stylistic choice, designed to leave the reader feeling as disoriented as the characters. I have to wonder if this has been done to avoid cluttering the narrative or if it just lazy. I have read other works of fiction that gave this sense of confusion but still provided points of reference to assist the reader.

Conway states she “was not interested in the political landscape, but rather in the social landscape and how people really lived day to day” and this comes across clearly. As an anthropologist, however, I do not feel she achieved the social landscape and the social landscape does not exist without the political activities working in conjunction. Political dictates would have been harder to enforce in this era but I don’t know how they can be ignored completely and with this then being justified. To me, this read as an amatuer historian dabbling in complex narratives but not achieving anything solid.

This problem is further highlighted by the use of Delaware words at random moments in the text and expounded by the wooden use of the English language by the Indians. Expecting that indigenous communities would know fluent English is unreasonable and naive, however, there are ways Conway could have conveyed the lack of mutual understanding with greater effect and sensitivity than occurred in text. This issue is shared by other reviewers.

I don’t know what I expected from Thieving Forest but I don’t feel I got it. I see a lot of potential in Conway’s writing but something, this time, has let her down. This review might seem harsh but I believe the indigenous populations of any country are done a great disservice when they are broken down to basic parts and not rebuilt within any kind of context. Conway does have one character use the word “savages” and this is immediately negated as an appropriate word but ultimately, this is the only real instance.

Thieving Forest was a disappointing read and I had been looking forward to it.

Would I recommend this to other readers? No.

[Review] What the Apothecary Ordered: Questionable Cures Through the Ages compiled by Caroline Rance

quack

Title: What the Apothecary Ordered: Questionable Cures Through the Ages
Author: Caroline Rance
Publisher: Old House
Date of Publication: 17 February 2015
Number of Pages: 144

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by Goodreads (Old House & the author) in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: A quirky little book filled with the strange, absurd, curious and downright disgusting cures found throughout human history.

Review: I read this book on my Tube journey home, much to the shared amusement of my seatmate, who couldn’t seem to help sneaking looks at the many illustrations, advertisements and medieval art works. Had he not departed the train a few stops before I finished, I would have paid it forward and let him take it with him.

It is difficult to praise or find fault with this eclectically collated work. The work stands for itself and needs, essentially, to be taken at face value. Anyone interested in the history of medicine (chronologically, anthropologically, from a specific period [Roman, Greek, Georgian, Victorian, 20th century]) will find something to interest them. As “The Editor” notes, however, No remedy contained herein should be seen as the standard treatment used by the ‘Victorians’ or the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or anybody else. At various periods of history, people facing illness and injury have been active participants in their search for recovery, often holding the power in the their relationships with practitioners and trying many treatments until time (or death) brought relief” (4-5).

My personal favourites include;

To make oyl of puppy, which is good for any strain or bruise [1656] (51) – where the unfortunate puppy meets a sad fate.

Flagging breasts [1579] (82) – a method for making your “Dugges or Pappes” perky and firm again.

A bottle of Hungary water [1857] (100) – the unfortunate tale of treatment gone wrong but rectified by the small hand of an eight or nine year old boy being inserted into the anus; and

For recovering persons apparently drowned [1776] (117) which provides instruction on how to resuscitate a drowning and is the originating point of the phrase, blowing smoke up your bottom. Read More.

Caroline is on Twitter
The Quack Doctor blog can be found here.

Victorian Murderesses written by Mary S Hartman

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4 out of 5 stars
ARC provided free by Netgalley in return for an honest review

The relevance of Hartman’s work has grown since originally being published in 1976. An almost unquenchable appetite for the Victorian era has evolved and been sustained by the volume of work published [good, bad and utterly terrible] in the last decade and earlier.

Refreshingly, Hartman focuses on the feminine side of murder, delving into crimes that are shocking, violent but could be pulled from contemporary headlines. Particularly striking for me was the chapter on Constance Kent. Constance Kent I was familiar with from Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) but it was interesting to read Hartman’s chapter, which addressed the murder in a far more interesting way than Summerscale.

Readers who pick this book up need to know, however, that this is not a gentle introduction into Victorian murders and murder is almost a secondary history. This is not a soft read to be consumed over tea and chocolate biscuits as contextually, this book is a sociological history of women and how their roles within society, family, and history itself, has developed and evolved. The academic nature of the text is challenging but engaging and I feel this brings more to the subject and provides better insights, leading to greater understanding and hence, knowledge.

I agree with other reviewers that in part the book had large parts of conjecture but I find this complaint an easy problem to forgive as in many instances, a lot of the information required to complete a work of this nature, would not have been easily available at the time it was written. Contemporary audiences must remember that while we open up an internet browser, type our search into Google and hit enter, Hartman had to do real work. While we login to the many and various online academic databases, Hartman would have spent hours in the stacks, perhaps making long distance and international phone calls requesting photocopies or faxes of the information she required. In 1976, the Old Bailey Online was a dream no one had yet had.

I enjoyed Hartman’s book and I am grateful to Netgalley for approving me for a copy.

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