Five Wounds by @KatharineEdgar

I have had the absolute pleasure of reading various drafts of this book over the past two years. I started the first draft one evening and spent the following day half-asleep. The worst thing you can do when you have fibromyalgia is stay up late reading a book, but I simply couldn’t put it down as it melds all my favourite parts of literature: a brilliant, capable and feministy teenage heroine and historical accuracy.

5 Wounds is the comingof-age story of 15 year old Nan – a fiercely independent and headstrong young girl whose life changes drastically during a period of revolution and rebellion. Nan was sent sent to live in convent school following an unfortunate incident as a young child. This afforded her a level of freedom and education that many young girls of her class would never have experienced.

However, this is 1536 and the schism between Rome and Henry VIII has changed everything. Nan’s dreams of remaining in the convent and becoming a great Abbess are destroyed after Henry’s troops close the convent. Instead, Nan was bartered as a commodity and betrothed, rather unwillingly, to the much older and frequently married Lord Middleham. Nan’s father gains more land from this betrothal and Lord Middle ham a wife younger than his children. Nan’s Catholic faith, nurtured during her years living in a convent leads to her involvement in the Northern rebellion against Henry VIII during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Nan is forced to choose between her faith and her personal safety. Does she chose treason or eternal damnation?

 The true strengths of Edgar’s writing are the character of Nan and the accuracy of the historical context of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Nan is alternately naive and brave, and her flawed choices reflect her optimism, faith and failure to understand the full consequences of rebellion. She is equally a child and an adult – limited by the constraints of her gender but freed by her desire to change the world.

Edgar’s love of history and the breadth of her research only adds to brilliance of the story. 5 Wounds precipitated one of my favourite historical discussion The Great Whether-Or-Not Noble Women Learned to Ride Normally Debate. I voted yes on the theory that noble daughters were valuable commodities and no sensible father would allow an expensive piece of property to remain incapable of escape from the numerous wars/ tantrums and general violence that defines European history.

I loved 5 Wounds. It was fast-paced, exciting and utterly brilliant. I can’t recommend it enough!

You can buy 5 Wounds from Amazon now.

Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History

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I was disappointed by Castor’s Joan of Arc but only because I had not realised what it was Castor was writing. I wanted to read a biography of Joan and chose Castor’s book simply because I absolutely adored Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. It was historically accurate, as well as imaginative. There is so very little writing left by the women Castor profiled that any biography would be contingent on teasing out finely spun threads within the misogynist writings of those around them.

Unknown 1Castor’s Joan of Arc is the contextualisation of Joan within the history of Europe. It is about the France that existed in Joan’s beliefsIt contains little of Joan’s own dictated letters or chunks of testimony from the trials. As I wanted to read more of Joan, I chose to read The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc by Larrissa Juliet Taylor next. The Virgin Warrior contained more direct testimony of Joan but engaged in the hero-worship that Castor was arguing against. Equally, without having read Castor’s book I would not have been in a position to understand the historical context in which Joan was living. I knew the basics of the 100 years war and the various Henrys running about, but not enough about the political situation. Taylor’s text in focussing more on Joan does not contextualise her life and accomplishments within the greater political scene.

I suppose what I really wanted was a history of Joan of Arc that traced the myths as well as the history – rather like Bettany Hughes utterly brilliant Helen of Troy. Whilst I haven’t found that (and I’m always open to recommendations). Castor’s text is a well worth the read. She’s funny, sarcastic, and accurate – a skill set not many historians have. I love the way Castor challenges historical orthodoxy whilst making it clear that how we interpret history actually erases the lived experiences of those we are writing –  making Joan a “legend, icon and saint” but no longer a young girl. Instead, we label Joan schizophrenic without recognising the reality of faith during Joan’s life where talking to saints was considered a gift – not a curse. Castor made Joan real – and that is an essential rewriting of history.

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And, because there is never a moment when Horrible Histories isn’t a good plan:

Realm of the Goddess by Sabina Khan

I first heard of the Realm of the Goddess in a blog with author Sabina Khan on Women Writers, Women Books. As the mother of two daughters, it was this that got my interest:

Disappointed at this obvious lack of diversity to choose from, I decided that I would write one myself. I feel strongly about the need to expose our youth to the magical and colorful traditions that make up our world. I also want my daughters to read about characters like themselves, so that they are not always reading about “others”. Or feeling that they are always the “others”.

My children and others of their generation may or may not want to read about the immigrant experience. But they certainly want to see themselves reflected in the fiction of their time. They want to see characters like themselves battling evil, falling in love and fighting with their parents. They want to know that others like them are dealing with conflicts as diverse as arranged marriage, education, religion and all of the issues that plague young people, regardless of their ethnicity.

As a lover of the genre of fantasy in young adult fiction, I wanted to read a book that was outside the vampire/werewolf/witch theme. I was going to put the book on my Amazon wishlist (600 books long and growing), but it was free on kindle so I downloaded it. And, then couldn’t put it down. It is very difficult to build lego for your kid whilst trying to read a book at the same time and not to  be recommended.

Realm of the Goddess does follow the pattern of vampire/ werewolf / witch books but with Hindu mythology. That alone makes it stand out from the crowd, but it is the richness of detail of Hindu mythology that makes this book so fabulous. The inclusion of the mythology is not forced or that dreadful Wikipedia-style history which made A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book so unbearable. As a history nerd, I do love historical youth fiction and ones which are correct are hard to find. Granted I knew only the basics of Hindu mythology, but reading this made me want to read more (all recommendations of books written by women gratefully received!).

The main character Callie was fabulously written with depth and intelligence. She also ate actual food with gusto – all kinds of food from the traditional dishes of her family to cheeseburgers and pizza. Her hair was never perfect standing straight up on end when she awoke to the frizz of humidity. Callie reminded me of the character of Claire Danvers in the Morganville Vampire books: intelligent, strong, loyal, and kind. The female characters in young adult fiction are frequently unbearable with their desperation to be with a man. Callie does have a love interest (and they do kiss) but the discussions of the relationship focus on what Callie believes is best for her. Realm of the Goddess joins the Morganville Vampires in being as close to feminist-friendly as can be written. This is why it will never get the publicity of Twilight, which reinforced the norms of our patriarchal culture. Callie not only challenges these norms, but also talks about the reality of male violence and rape. In fact, rape and other forms of male violence are integral to the plot and are clearly labelled as the sole impediment to women’s liberation and power.

This is the hallmark of a great book for me, strong female characters who are real. I want to read more by Khan as well as more books written about Hindu mythology.  I want to see Khan publish a fact book on Hindu mythology like Rick Riordan did for Greek mythology with his Percy Jackson books.

I’m also restraining myself from emailing daily to ask when she’s going to publish the second book.

Amber E. Kinser’s Motherhood and Feminism

History of motherhood starting at industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a ‘basic’ history of motherhood in the US. Or, at least, it should be a basic history but Kinser traces more than the usual history of white middle class women with its focus on Victorian values, Betty Friedan and the myth of suburbia. Instead, Kinser traces the real history of motherhood looking at how issues of class, race and homophobia/lesbophobia challenge the dominant discourses of motherhood.

Her inclusion of the history of reproductive rights and mothering of Chicana and African-American women is a much needed addition to the feminist movements understanding of history and the complexities of real reproductive justice in a culture where racism and classism create categories of good and bad mothers; which punishes women of colour for becoming mothers.

Kinser also examines radical feminist texts on motherhood and labels them as radical feminist. Usually these texts on women’s history and feminist theory try to erase the term radical feminist and situate women like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde out with their theoretical heritage. Shulamith Firestone is simply dismissed. Kinser writes about the history of motherhood as a patriarchal institutional and the challenges to it through an intersectional lens actually addressing issues of race, class, gender, and identities.

Anna Politkovskaya – A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

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It feels like I have read this book a thousand times. This is just another war with another brave woman crossing into hell to report on genocide, mass rape and the real consequence of capitalism. I have read it a thousand times reading testimonies of Holocaust survivors – Odette Abadi, Eva Brewster, Ruth Elias. I’ve read it when the countries named were Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh. I’ve read Linda Polman’s catalogue of failures of UN peacekeeping forces in Somalia and Haiti. I have read it in Beverly Allen’s Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia  and Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women. I have read Judith Zur’s research into memories of violence among Mayan Indian war widows. I have read about the Rape of Nanking and the slaughter of civilians at Mai Lai. And, I read every blog posted on Women Under Siege about Burma, North Korea, Libya, Sri Lanka Darfur and countless other war zones where sexual violence is an intrinsic part of genocide. I have read feminist texts like Beatrix Campbell’s End of Equality  which demonstrate the direct link between capitalism and the oppression of civilian populations through sexual violence and war.

The names of the perpetrators change. The name of the conflict zone changes. The civilian populations targeted change. The names of the reporters changes. The names of those murdered grows longer. But, still the Twentieth Century remains one where genocide, mass rape and torture were normal – a  century where more people lived in abject poverty without access to clean water, sanitation and even food in order to perpetuate a capitalist economy that privileges very few.

Anna Politkovskaya’s text is powerful, distressing and enraging. It is a catalogue of torture, murder, rape and the acceptability of concentration camps all whilst the rest of the world looks on and does nothing. It is about men’s desire to exert control and power: to control natural resources, including people. We allow children to starve to death and grandmothers to perish from preventable diseases despite having the ability to prevent them because it would interfere with men’s desire for power.

We upgrade to an iPhone 5 when our iPhone 3 would work just as well because we must have the newest toy; never mind that this desire continues the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We see thousands of boys conscripted into armies to fight other boys and taught to rape to build bonds of brotherhood so that a few men can control a mine. We buy from Tetley, despite their perpetuation of the modern slave trade. We buy new clothes ever 3 months even though we know that there are women and children working in subhuman factories making them. We fight a “War on Drugs” which serves only to make weapons manufacturers richer.

After the Holocaust, the world swore “Never Again”. And, it’s happened over and over and over and over again. We owe the millions of people who have been brutally tortured, raped and murdered in wars across the world to, at the very least, acknowledge their experiences. We owe it to them to make sure their lives are heard. Politkovskaya’s text is essential reading because we cannot continue to pretend that civilian casualties and male violence are normal behaviour. We cannot turn our backs any longer to human rights abuses that we support financially through our purchase of laptops and tea.

Politkovskaya documented genocide and was murdered for her work.

Two weeks ago, 200 young girls were kidnapped in Nigeria whilst the world looked away. Some have escaped but many remain missing. And, the media does not cover the story.

Our planet is dying from abuse and our most precious resource, people, are being slaughtered in the name of the capitalist-patriarchy.

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is a must read because we cannot live like this.

 

 

Angela Bourkes’ The Burning of Bridget Cleary

Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a social history of the use of fairies and other myths to control people’s behaviour in Ireland in the 19th century. She traces the history of these myths to contextualise the brutal torture and murder of Bridget Cleary by her husband and kinsmen. It is very powerful but equally horrifying. What impressed me the most is that Bourke places the murder of Bridget firmly within a narrative of domestic violence. There are no excuses for male violence so, whilst the murder is contextualised with a history of faeries, changelings, power struggles, and jealousy  Bourke holds the murderers accountable. Bourke then situates the trial of Bridget’s murderers within the political context of British Home Rule of Ireland and the British construction of Irish people as savages.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary is one of the most fascinating and well-researched books I have ever read. Bourke traces multiple layers of  history and myth to tell the story of the murder of Bridget Cleary. It’s rather like Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher* but from a feminist perspective rather than a comprehensive social history.

I honestly can not recommend this book enough. It is brilliant, insightful, frightening and, above all, a true picture of the complicated processes required to tell the history of women.

*The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is worth a read too as it contextualises the origins of detectives in British society within the literature of the day particularly in relation to the work of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

Helena Kennedy’s Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice

I love this book. It’s a fucking brilliant deconstruction of the systemic misogyny and racism endemic in the British justice system. Kennedy basically takes a swipe at the hypocrisy, prejudices and ignorance of police officers, lawyers, judges and juries; at those destructive theories of hyper-masculinity and femininity which criminalise women for being women. Kennedy’s main thesis is that “(r)eal equality means treating ‘as equals’ whilst taking account of the context of our lives.” (4): everyone is equal under the law but we treat people as individuals and not as cartoon characters. What she actually says is: “… all I am really asking is that the law should be capable of transcending difference by first acknowledging it.” (11)

I wrote that paragraph last week and then saved a huge pile of notes with it. Obviously, I can no longer remember the clearly erudite statements I was going to make about this book other than it was brilliant and it was very clear not only on the role poverty plays in criminalising women’s behaviour but also how poverty is no longer considered an acceptable mitigating factory for women’s behaviour. (81) Women can be constructed as victims, particularly in the issue of prostitution. Women are victims of the Patriarchy and the physical and emotional damage to our bodies is how the Patriarchy punishes women but poverty is a major reason women are victims. (111) If we talk about poverty, then we have to take responsibility for the structural inequalities which harm individuals and have repercussions throughout society, whereas with victimisation politics we can decant responsibility onto specific individuals. This allows society to deny the existence of the patriarchal structures and rape culture in which we live. Kennedy reiterates over and over again the economic inequalities which punish, isolate and violate the very basis of women’s lives.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book was the discussion of the double oppression faced by Black women in the UK due to race and sex/gender. Kennedy argues that the matriarchal family structures prevalent in Black British families disproportionately result in the incarceration of Black women because the white patriarchal legal system is scared shitless of intelligent strong women, especially intelligent strong women who don’t happen to be “white.” (170-171) The marginalization of Black women within the justice system is simply a travesty. There are no words to describe just how badly Black women are treated, derided and over-punished in the UK. Kennedy’s praise of the Southall Black Sisters is immense but I personally don’t think we can ever commend the work of SBS enough. They are a small, poorly-funded organisation who do incredible work with ethnic minority women within a culture which cares very little for these women.

The only part of the book which I found problematic was one sentence buried in an otherwise important [and incredibly depressing] chapter on prostitution. Basically, Kennedy asserts that there is such a thing as adult consensual prostitution and denying its existence infantilises women. (147) Now, I’m sure Brooke Magnanti engaged in “adult consensual prostitution” but let’s be accurate here: for every “Belle du Jour”, there are literally millions of women trapped in prostitution and other parts of the “sex industry” who didn’t “consent” to be there. What is really perplexing is that the rest of the chapter is a catalogue of the damage and destruction that prostitution does to women’s bodies, the social consequences of prostitution for individual women and the very salient fact that for some women prostitution is the only way to “work” whilst having children. Kennedy is also very clear that “(p)rostitution has been tolerated because of two sustaining concepts: the protection of the private sphere from the hand of the law and an acceptance of male promiscuity which is not afforded women.” (146) The problem is that acknowledging these two points makes the argument that some women “choose” to be prostitutes ridiculous.The quote also contradicted other chapters in the book wherein Kennedy demonstrates that women are disproportionately incarcerated for petty crimes and the amount of abuse and mental illness that women as a group endure before/during prostitution [and prison]. The sentence just reads wrong.

At its heart, Eve Was Framed is a call to arms to rebuild the entire British Justice system so that it is fair for all whilst recognising and encompassing the specific needs of individuals. It is about justice for those who aren’t white, rich and male. Yes, it is 20 years old and supposedly our justice system is more aware of the structural inequities but we all know that’s a crock of shit. Southall Black Sisters, along with Amnesty International and other groups, have been fighting for the “no recourse to public funds” rule overturned in the cases of women escaping domestic violence. The public vitriol, misogynistic bullying and threats that the victim of the convicted rapist Ched Evans received on twitter have gone on without impunity and nothing covers the unrelenting horror of a woman convicted in Wales forperjury after withdrawing her allegation of rape owing to physical threats by the rapist and his family/friends: a conviction that the Court of Appeals refused to squash. Women do not receive real justice in the UK. They never have. We need to change things now and not let our daughters suffer similar fates.

Once Bitten: Stupid Vampire Book and I Should Have Known Better.

It’s a book about vampires and werewolves. I wasn’t exactly expecting a Feminist treatise. I was tired but not quiet tired enough to go to bed and wanted to read something forgettable to put my brain to sleep. That didn’t happen.

Trina Lee’s Once Bitten is a serious pile of misogynistic twaddle that even manages to makeTwilight look not-too-evil-in-the-domestic-violence-perpetuating-stakes. The basic premise is woman born with psychic powers is turned into a werewolf in an incident which involves the slaughter of the rest of her family. Then, she has sex with a vampire who bites her. They end up with a strong psychic connection which requires them to have sex whilst she’s simultaneously having sex with another werewolf who’s the “good boy”. So far, so stupid. 

The book gets worse. Alexa joins a pack after the “alpha male” saves her from being raped; aged 17. The response of the emotionally traumatised child is to “offer” herself sexually to the man who saved her physically from rape and emotionally from the loss of her family. And, the “alpha male”, an adult nearly 20 years her senior, fucks her. She is an emotionally traumatised child. That isn’t consensual sex. It’s sexual abuse. An adult who has “sex” with a child in this scenario is a sexual predator and rapist.

But, it gets even worse. It turns out that the werewolf who makes Alexa a werewolf is also the head of the pack that she now belongs too. The “alpha male” was involved sexually with Alexa’s mother and he murdered her because he was jealous. He killed Alexa’s entire family because Alexa’s mother stopped having sex with him. So, he starts having “sex” with Alexa instead. And, apparently, it’s Alexa’s fault she was sexually abused by this predator because he couldn’t control himself sexually and she “offered” herself up to him.

This book is the most heinous kind of rape-myth, victim blaming, misogynistic bullshit. I genuinely couldn’t stop reading because I couldn’t believe just how many rape myths the author had internalised. It’s the same kind of victim-blaming shite that Gabriel Garcia Marquez tries to pass off as “romantic” in Love in the Time of Cholera except this time its a werewolf who can’t “control” himself. Men who rape do so because they want to; because they are rapists. It isn’t about loss of control. They know perfectly well that they are raping a woman. They just don’t think that women are human.

Trina M. Lee could do with reading these rape myths before trying to write another book.

Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees

This is the best book I’ve read in ages and I’ve read some pretty freaking brilliant books lately. The Death of Bees was one of my random choices from the Edinburgh Book Festival. I always buy a few books by authors I’ve never heard of but this is the best one by far. It is triggering since it covers the systemic violence against women, particularly against those young girls who aren’t considered “proper” victims but it is also beautiful, funny and full of hope.  It is the story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, struggling to survive in  a Glasgow housing estate without their parents, who they’ve just buried in a shallow grave in the backyard. They are victimised and revictimised in every manner possible and left to self-destruct by a welfare state that doesn’t give a shit about poor kids from the housing estates. After all, when school is only “a convenient way for all of us to congregate in one place”, it is obvious that these are the kids no one cares about (p.47). But, it’s more than a litany of abuse. It’s about surviving, friendships, the meaning of sisterhood and what really makes a family.

I don’t tend to rate books but if I did, this one would have 5 stars. It’s beautiful (as I said when I bored Twitter senseless whilst reading it).

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I know I’m late to the party on this having only discovered her books two years ago but she is an amazing writer. The Poisonwood Bible is one of the best books I have ever read. Pigs in Heaven covers the same terrain as The Poisonwood Bible: motherhood, sisterhood, female friendships, family and surviving.

Pigs in Heaven is the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle who is Cherokee. The central plot is who Turtle really belongs too: the woman who illegally adopted her but who nurtured her through the trauma of her extensive physical and sexual abuse or the Cherokee nation into whom she was born. Kingsolver asks complicated questions about family and sisterhood and, whilst the ending is too pat, it is, fundamentally, a testament to how we should be raising our children: not as possessions but as members of extended communities built on love and tradition.

These are my two favourite quotes:

Alice realises something important about her daughter at this moment: that she’s genuinely a mother. She has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you every had time for small things like despising the color pink.

 …

Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that makes them bubble and rise.

 

For obvious reasons.