The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West – Lorna Gibb

Lorna Gibb’s biography The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West is a fascinating portrayal of one of the world’s earliest feminist icons (excluding the outliers such as Eleanor of Aquitaine). Of course, I was familiar with who West was – particularly with the quote about doormats and prostitutes that she has been credited with – but Gibb’s account fleshed out a woman who was equal parts flawed and fascinating. But then, name me a sociopolitical icon who isn’t.

I was completely unaware of West’s relationship with (the married) HG Wells. This relationship – and the son that came from it, Anthony, the only child she would have – was a huge influence in her life. Reading about it in 2017 is both cringeworthy and hearthbreaking, to read of a woman whose life was largely put on hold for a married man who had no real intention of leaving his wife; even after Amy died, there was no serious interest formalizing his relationship with West, though he was happy to enjoy the benefits such a relationship brought him. It’s easy to see how such a relationship would have been so formative in the evolution of her thoughts and as a writer. I found it frustrating that West set such a stock by him, although she was hardly the first woman – even the first feminist icon (Ms Shelly, I’m looking at you) – to do so.

On reflection, the biography focuses largely on her domestic life and how it influenced her as a writer, although I think that’s true of a lot of figures; to bring up another feminist icon, reading Daddy, We Hardly Knew You gave me a much deeper understanding of Germaine Greer and what had motivated her own writing, and upon reading of Marx’s parasitical upbringing and lifestyle, it’s easier to see how he came up with the Communist Manfesto.

I have to admit, I am unfamiliar with West’s work – beyond the prostitutes and doormats quote which may or may not have been hers – but reading this book made me want to explore her ideas further. She lived well into her nineties – her son only outlived her by a few years – and faced a lot of rough times, some of her own doing, some as a result of the society she lived in at the time. It’s a shame she isn’t as well known as Wells, because it seems she contributed as least as many great ideas to our society as her more famous lover.

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Being 14 – Madonna King

Madonna King’s Being 14 reminded me a little of Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabees, but updated (2017 v late 90’s/early 00’s) and based in Australia, which made it a little more relatable. I don’t have children of my own, but do have a sixteen-year-old soon-to-be-stepdaughter (who I knew at fourteen – twelve, actually) so the book resonated somewhat. I’m going to call her Drew. (Those of you who know her – and more to the point, me and my love for feminist-friendly movies – should get the reference.)

King mostly talks about the unrealistic beauty standards facing both teenagers today and her own pop culture icons; she look at Agneta Faltskog and Farrah Fawcett, professionally made up with thousands of hours and fashion dollars invested in them, but none the less a far more attainable look than that of the Pretty Little Liars cast. (Also, being an athletic crime solver or talented singer is a somewhat more admirable aspiration than the PLL characters.) In one anecdote, she talks about a subject who had bought several copies of a magazine, to the bafflement of the newsagent owner. When she explained that she was on the cover and wanted to send copies to her aunt, grandmother, cousins etc, this exacerbated rather than cleared up the newsagent’s confusion as the made-up, airbrushed figure on the cover looked nothing like the girl who was buying the magazine, in much the same way I, a thirtysomething white woman, looks nothing like Beyonce. I think that particular anecdote jumped out at me because of how far removed what we see on TV, in the movies and in magazines is from the reality, and how badly we are setting up our young people for failure when the things they aspire to are only attainable through airbrushing.

There were some helpful tips about engaging with teenage girls looking to push the boundaries, and recognizing that the need to push the boundaries that made me think of Drew; I made a mental note to bring them up the next time it’s relevant to the conversation. I guess what I really took from this book was how relatable it was, despite not having children, and never having had an interest in them. I think that’s a measure of good writing, when someone who has no vested interest in the subject matter still finds it interesting.

Naomi Alderman – The Power

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a brilliant piece of gender-flipped, speculative political fiction where women have developed skeins which allow them to create and control electricity, which in turn gives them the power to hurt and control men; almost overnight, the power (im)balance between genders has been completely flipped. With the bulk of it set in (what I assume to be) the near future and interspersed with images of artefacts from thousands of years ago but (relatively soon) after the main story, it is a fascinating look at how power corrupts and women are not inherently more nurturing or docile than men.

It starts with scenes of women who have been victims of male violence – the daughter of a low-level gangster, sex slaves in Eastern Europe – turning the tables viciously and very satisfactorily, but bit by bit, the justifications become increasingly flimsy. In one scene, a group of women come across a stray man in the dumpster area behind a bar, and having discovered they can use their powers to involuntarily achieve an erection out of a man, proceed to pass him around like a joint. They claim that he was ‘asking for it’ by wearing provocative clothes, drinking and being in a drinking establishment without a (female) chaperone… sound familiar? No? Switch the genders between the group and their victim. There you go. The book is full of such examples, woven easily into the story of a world rapidly and dramatically changing, but that one stands out and the most striking.

What I loved about this book is that Alderman doesn’t try to write her characters as being better – more peaceful, more fair, more nurturing – than men when placed in the same positions of power. They can be just as flawed, just as corruptible, just as cruel and power-mad as any man can be… and in far greater numbers than those stand-out figures such as an Eastern European first lady who becomes interim President after her husband dies and ends up doing the kind of damage that a certain North Korean fellow can so far only dream about, are those women who enjoy the benefits a matriarchal society brings them, even if they aren’t inherently misandric.

This book isn’t for everyone; such books never are. It’s hard to stomach passages of men being subjected to violence and discrimination for no other reason than ‘women are superior’ without recognizing nothing Alderman writes about cannot be applied to the history of men and women in reverse, and to recognize this and do nothing is… discomforting, to say the least.  But that’s also what makes it such a great book; what is good literature if not something that is provocative and makes you a little unconfortable?

The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

Either Philippa Gregory is on a bad run of writing, or my tastes have changed, because I used to love her work but I’ve found her last few offerings to be very ho-hum. I was excited to hear about her new book about the Grey sisters, who I had first been introduced to through Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor.

The Last Tudor started out reasonably well from the perspective of Jane Grey, the oldest of the three sisters. Historically, Jane has been the most sympathetic of the thee girls, well-read and articulate and wanting to be left alone. But as one of the nearest to the throne during the tumultuous Tudor dynasty – the granddaughters of Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Mary – she was a magnet for those who sought power should any crack in the succession show. In this case, Henry’s only son Edward dying young without a son of his own; although Henry had decreed that his oldest daughter Mary should inherit the throne, the Protestant Edward did not want his Catholic half-sister becoming Queen, and instead decreed his Protestant cousin Jane Grey to inherit instead.

And so starts off a chain of events which would blight the sisters’ lives for as long as they lived – and none of them lived particularly long lives, even by medieval standards.

As detailed above, Jane was easily the most sympathetic of the three girls, a teenager who disagreed with her cousin Mary’s faith, but nonetheless respected her position as Queen and never wanted to usurp her. Gregory portrays the tragedy of a teenager forced into the position of usurper and then executed for her troubles – Mary recognized that Jane was not the cause of the trouble, but also that while she lived, and remained Protestant, she would be a nucleus for anti-Catholic forces to gather around – reasonably well, though not as engagingly as Gregory did.

The problem starts when she writes about Katherine and Mary. While Jane was pious, well read, articulate and wanting nothing more than to be left alone with her books, Katherine and Mary both harbor serious ambitions to the throne. While they did not deserve their fates, they seemed to lack the good sense to know the potential consequences of saying ‘pick me!pick me!’ when it comes to being next in line to the throne. Um… did they forget what happened to their older sister? A woman who had actively fought all attempts to put her on said throne? Did they simply see a difference between Jane usurping a living Mary versus them waiting for Elizabeth to die? Quite a significant distinction, I’ll admit, but one Elizabeth, notoriously paranoid of claimants to the throne, doesn’t make herself.

Jane was the only one to be beheaded, although none of the sisters lived to see thirty-five. Queen Elizabeth is portrayed damningly, something which seems to have become somewhat of a trend in Tudor-era fiction in the last ten years, ironically in the same time frame as Anne Boleyn’s characterisation is enjoying something of a rehabilitation, almost to the point of becoming a feminist icon.

Above all else, there are very few sympathetic characters in this book; Jane is the only one who comes close, and she isn’t nearly as sympathetic or engaging as she is in Weir’s novel. I’ve seen that done well in past novel – the slap by Christos Tsiolkas comes to mind – but this is definitely not one of the books. An enjoyable read for those of us who like Tudor-era historical fiction, and specifically Gregory, but not one of her best, and not one I would recommend for readers whos tastes fall outside the genre.

PS. For the love of God, how did Amy Robsart die?

And the Band Played On; Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic – Randy Shilts

After reading Somebody to Love, the biography of Freddie Mercury which was heavily intertwined with the history of AIDS, I looked further into the history of the disease, and And the Band Played on by Randy Shilts came up repeatedly. It is a very engaging read, having dated little since its publication over thirty years ago. Gaeten Dugas’s status as archvillan of the scourge has since been tempered somewhat (rather than being the so-called Patient Zero, he’s been downgraded to a kind of Typhoid Gaeten, albeit a more malicious one that the original Typhoid Mary) and Ronald Reagan has been elevated in his legacy as a neo-conservative who did a lot of harm and little good, but beyond that, the writing feels as relevant today as it would have been in the mid-eighties.

Shilts, himself a gay man who was diagnosed with the virus shortly after finishing the book, tracks the early cases of this mysterious wasting disease from the Belgium Congo to impoverished islands nations such as Haiti and eventually to America, then the rest of the world. He talks about isolated incidents of what, in hindsight, were probably the virus but died out due to a particular village’s isolation from the world; knowing what we know now (and even what was known in the mid-eighties) this is a foreshadowing, even more so, reading it in 2017. How many diseases have in the past simply died out because geographical isolation contained them? With modern travel obliterating most of those isolations, what epidemics might we look forward to in the future?

Shilts was deeply damning of Reagan and the conservative politics he represented; Reagan’s refusal to recognise the severity of the disease as anything but the gay community’s problem (some almost gleeful at the thought that said community might wipe itself out with the disease) allowed the disease to get a foothold in the first world, and by the time it had started affecting the ‘respectable’ members of the community, it was too far gone. Shilts recalls how swiftly the government responded to the Legionnaire’s Disease and poisoned Tylenol scares, both of which infected and killed far fewer (and this was by the numbers of the time, when the AIDS death count was in the tens of thousands) but affected desirable members of the community – the wealthy, the respectable and children – so were dealt with in a swift and effective manner, namely with a lot of public government support and money. This goes back to AIDS being seen as a problem of the undesirable members of the community, so it was left to fester, until it was affecting more ‘desirable’ members, by which point it was too late.

He was also damning of the blood banks, who thought it would be too expensive to screen for the disease, and actively campaigned to have references to the disease being blood-borne removed from public consumption, which meant people remained ignorant for much longer than they ought to have been about the sexually transmitted nature of the disease.

Shilts’s last main villianous group is the gay community, who collectively refused to acknowledge the sexually transmitted nature of the disease and promote safe sexual practices. From a 2017, it is heartbreaking to read, over and over again, the attitudes of ‘they’re just trying to stop me having fun’ which allowed the disease to spread. Shilts singles out Gaeten Dugas to reflect this attitude and the tragic consequences of it, although later journalistic evidence has since conceded that not only was Dugas not the one who brought the disease into the US, but his remarkable memory when it came to his lovers is what allowed early doctors and scientists to create some of the earliest databases of patients. (Dugas’s refusal to believe he was sick, and later on his malicious infecting of others, hardly makes the man a saint, he’s just not guilty of all he was accused of.)

I found this book to be engaging, heartbreaking and infuriating – all in a good way. There has been little covered since that isn’t covered in this book, which may in itself be pretty damning, but makes it hold up well as a definitive authority on such as devastating disease and the medical and social reasons behind it.

Somebody to Love – Matt Richards/Mark Langthorne

Somebody to Love, a recent biography of Freddie Mercury, is a fascinating read that wove the history of AIDS into the book. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but having an interest in history and medical history, I was utterly engrossed. Richards and Langthorne manage to create an almost unbroken link between the original AIDS-infested primate in the Congo and Mercury, not to mention the six-degrees game between Mercury and alledged ‘Patient Zero’ Gaetan Dugas (which was more like two degrees), although I suspect said link was more creative than reliable.

 The music side of the biography was interesting, looking at Mercury’s life from his upbringing as Farrokh Bulsara and the conservatism of life in India which coloured his attitude towards his sexuality his entire life. Though he had come of age in the swinging sixties, there was still a great deal of homophobia that influenced the way he lived his life, never publicly coming out until he was on his deathbed. It goes into his attempts as a young adult to confirm to heteronormativity, and one girlfriend who became a life-long friend, the platonic relationship lasting far longer than the romantic one did.

 Reading about Queen’s formation and rise to fame reads like a Who’s Who of 70’s music, and highlights just how much they contributed to modern music. Richards and Langthorne were quite critical of the way the remaining members – Brian May in particular – have continued to benefit from Queen’s legacy, from the moment of Mercury’s tribute concert that was more about the big-name artists of the day and not those Mercury had actually admired – Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson etc.

 While there is a decent chunk of the book dedicated to their music and its effect on the industry, much of it was about Mercury’s personal demons, namely his inability to publicly acknowledge himself as gay, culminating in his outing himself as a gay man and one with AIDS on his deathbed; the day before he died, it turned out. Which brings me back to my original point; this was as much as story about Freddie Mercury as it is about the public face of AIDS and its place in popular culture. Mercury, along with Rock Hudson, was among the first known celebrities to die of the disease. His illness and death helped raise awareness of the disease, although we still have a long way to go. The emphasis on the history of AIDS may not interest some, but I found in intriguing and would recommend this book because of it.

This is How it Always Is – Laurie Frankel

This is How it Always Isis the account of the Walsh-Adams family, whose youngest son Claude knew from a young age – young, as in three years old – that he identified, to some degree, as a girl.

 Though it’s a fictional account, Frankel was inspired by her own journey with her son/daughter, and at times it comes across like an idealised account of how she would have liked to have handled the situation. Nonetheless, the story in engaging and thought-provoking, detailing the Walsh-Adams journey as they do their best to accommodate Claude/Poppy’s identity, which includes moving from the midwest (and all the conservatism that implies) to Philadelphia, which Frankel describes as being so far beyond tolerant that straight couples feel like an endangered species. Naturally, not even the most ‘beyond tolerant’ of cities will make Claude/Poppy’s childhood and adolescence trauma-free (even allowing for the usual traumas you would expect of a pre-pubescent child) and their lives are fraught with secrets and a tightrope of decisions that seem like the best of a bad bunch at the time but have the potential to go catastrophically wrong at any given moment.

 There’s a segue into Thailand and its ladyboy culture (which comes across as a lot less shoehorned than how I just wrote it) which offers some great insights into how a country viewed by many in the West as backwards could be so more tolerant, perhaps in a large part because of its Buddhist influences. And there’s a fairytale that author dad Penn has been making up on the fly for over a decade that ties it all up together in a way that made me feel all warm and gooey inside.

 This Is How it Always Is is, for all it’s examples of bigotry, quite a heart-warming story about a child who doesn’t fit into a binary definition of gender and their loving, supportive family. Though mum Rosie, an ER Doctor, frequently reflects on the hate crimes she has seen committed against transgender people, and her fear for such crimes being commited against her child were heartbreakingly believable, I never felt that Claude/Poppy was in danger. Nonetheless, it is an insightful novel about the arbitrary nature of what is considered ‘acceptable’ when it comes to things like gender and identity, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Six Tudor Queens: A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

To be honest, I find Alison Weir’s work to be a little patchy. I’ve loved some of her work (Innocent Traitor was what got me started) and found others to be very average. I was delighted with the first installment of her six-part series about King Henry VIII’s wives, told from the perspective of Katherine of Aragon, was was looking forward to the second about Anne Boleyn, as much of their stories overlapped and I was intrigued by how different two perspectives of the same story would be.

The result was a little blah in my opinion. There was a very interesting thread throughout the book about the rights of kings – and to a lesser extent, men – in such a time period, that absolute power gives them unchecked rights, and I would have liked to have seen that fleshed out more.

There’s also a fascinating section towards the beginning of the novel about the time she spent in France and the bastion of literacy and education it was for women. In her notes at the end of the book, Weir talked about how she disliked the concept of Boleyn as a feminist heroine, as feminism didn’t exist in the sixteenth century, but that her research had caused her to rethink that as there have certainly been fiery, well-educated women throughout history who held no reservations about utilizing that fire and education. (Perhaps as a foreboding, Queen Claude cites both Isabella of Castille – Katherine of Aragon’s mother – as well as the dreadful treatment of Katherine’s sister Jauna being referenced early in the book.)

The problem, which is a problem with much of the Anne Boleyn-centric literature, is that it failed to capture what was so fascinating about her that Henry tore the country apart and reshaped history in his desire to have her. Perhaps the point is that she wasn’t fascinating, that Henry was a greedy man with an unchecked sense of entitlement who had to have someone who didn’t want him, that Anne was merely a pawn in a game where an autocratic rapist (who didn’t want to be made to feel he was a rapist) called the shots.

(Speaking of autocratic rapists – Weir has long been an advocate of Mary Boleyn’s, claiming her reputation was entirely undeserved. She really goes to town damning both Henry and Francis’s treatment of her, and gives Mary the happy ending of both marrying for love in the end and outliving every member of her scheming family and inheriting the lot.)

Another criticism is of Jane Boleyn – I am yet to read an account which makes sense of her behavior. She lost a lot for her tattling, and every story I’ve read of her portrays her as a vile schemer who seemingly plots for the sheer thrill of it. Either she was severely mistreated by the Boleyn family or she was a sociopath who overplayed her hand, but I’d love to see a novel that fleshes out her motives as something more than a two-dimensional villain, a woman who’s testimony results in the death of several people for seemingly no better reason than petty jealousy.

I actually enjoyed this book, for all my criticisms of it. It just wasn’t as great as the first installment, and failed to elicit any sympathy from me for any of the characters. There are better novels on the Tudor court to read.

Rise – Cara Brookins

Rise, the memoirs of writer Cara Brookings, tells the story of the house she built with her children. Not ‘the house they oversaw being built’ but the house they built. With their own 8 hands. Yes, they had professional help with stuff like wiring that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be done by someone who isn’t licenced, but a lot of it, the foundation, laying the bricks, nailing boards, was done by her and her children.

Brookings had emerged from two highly volatile relationships, her first marriage to an diagnosed (and when diagnosed, untreated) schizophrenic a heartbreaking illustration of a man’s decent into madness, a madness that threatened his wife and children physically and psychologically. Her second marriage contained its own terrors, but her memories of Adam, interspersed between stories of the house being built, offers a touching juxtaposition of a life broken and a life being rebuilt. On the run from her second husband, she decides to build a house in the woods almost on a whim, an idea that gains more and more traction with her children until she’s talked her way into a construction loan.

A traumatized, inexperienced woman and her equally traumatized, inexperienced children building a house from the foundation up goes about as smoothly as you can imagine… but also with the growth and unity within this down-but-not-out family unit you would expect from such a story. Some moments are funny, some tender, some empathy-inducing in the frustration and and sense of being overwhelmed Brookings often felt. There is often a sense of, having gone down this path, they have to push forward if only because they can’t go back. Brookings’s recollections of building the house, interspersed with her life with Adam and the disease and eventually let him to take his own life, conveyed the desperation of a woman who knows exactly what the road ‘back’ leads to, and makes you understand why going ‘back’ is no option.

In the epilogue, where Brookings reflects on how much they took from the experience, the peace she found with the events and individuals that had tormented her, this passage jumped out at me:

Jada and Drew were raiding the pantry together and I was in the library, listening. Jada was having trouble with middle-school mean girls, and Drew was half listening and half-heartedly giving out mediocre advice. 

Then Jada said something that caught her brother’s attention. She said, “I can’t”.

“What do you mean, you can’t?” Drew asked, angrier than I’d heard him in months. “Jada, you built your own damn house. You can do anything.” 

The book finishes on that note. You built your own damn house. You can do anything. Whatever it is that you built, those are good words to life by.

The Throwaway Children – Diney Costeloe

I was thinking of books to recommend for bookclub, and this one came to mind. It’s been a few years since I read it, so I may be a little rusty on some of the details, but the heart of the story has stayed with me over those years and it remains a book I would highly recommend. But be warned – it may be triggering for those of you sensitive to descriptions of physical and sexual abuse, as its central theme is the damage done by the Catholic Church to the other Stolen Generation – the white children shipped to Australia from the 1940’s to the 1970’s as part of the ‘populate or perish’ policy.

Mavis Stevens is a British WWII widow involved with a greedy, abusive bully, Jimmy. When she becomes pregnant, Jimmy uses this as leverage to get rid of her two daughters to her first marriage, Rita and Rosie. In her desperation to have a man, Mavis allows Jimmy to send the girls to an orphanage, omitting the fact that in doing so, she has effectively handed them over to the Church to do with as they see fit. The cruelty of those running church programs is astounding, the lengths they go to to keep Rosie and Rita from Mavis’s mother Lily comes across as much as emotional sadism as to cover their own backsides so their bad behavior doesn’t get found out.

The girls are shipped off to Australia as part of the arrangement between the two countries to populate the ‘colony’ with white children in a bit to stave off the threat of Asian immigrants. History has since judged the consequences of this plan to range somewhere between begin neglect and soul-shattering cruelty and abuse. The Stevens girls fall firmly in the latter camp, and the description of their ordeal is heartbreaking, all the more for how plausible their experiences were, albeit as fictionalized accounts.

(For further reading, I would recommend the nonfiction Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphries, or the movie based on it, Oranges and Sunshine.)

I’ve long advocated the importance of well-researched and written historical fiction as a means of teaching history – I believe Vivien Stuart’s excellent The Australians series should be reprinted, if only to stock in public libraries. The Throwaway Children is an excellent example of this, although I cannot stress enough how dark it can be at times.

My one gripe is how unsympathetically Mavis came across to me. I don’t know if Costeloe intended her to be portrayed so badly or it was her sole major slip-up, but I felt she deserved every last drop of her fate for the way she had tossed away her children for the sake of having a man. Yes, I got the circumstances, yes, I understand how lonely it would have been to be raising two young children in the post-war years, but I felt no empathy for her, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.

But overall, I highly recommend this book as as well-researched and written insight into one of the darker periods of our history. (Though between the xenophobia and abuse against pretty much every race that wasn’t Anglo, and the natural disasters, it’s not like were short of those…)