Women’s History Month series

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Links to interviews (and transcripts) with Melbourne women who protested against the Vietnam War and the National Service Act.

Introduction

Jean McLean

Diana Crunden

Jill Reichstein

(list continues below)

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Bake, from Paul Hollywood

I received this from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now; $52.00 for the (very lovely) hardcover.

I’m not naturally a celebrity chef fan, and I was late to the Great British Bake-Off. But I do now love GBBO, and I enjoy Hollywood’s style within the show as a rule; I also own his bread book because it has a very good range of styles, and is accessible. So I was quite interested to receive this and see what it contains.

First, in terms of appearance: this is, unsurprisingly, a very pretty book. I love a hardcover – although I’m a bit sad this is lacking a ribbon. Just one of those things I like. Anyway! The recipe pages are entirely standard, so they’re perfectly easy to read and follow; the pictures are nice and appealing. There are a few recipes that have some step-by-step photos – croissants, for instance, and the meringue roulade, which didn’t seem to need it as far as I was concerned.

There are six chapters: Cakes, Biscuits and Cookies, Breads and Flatbreads, Pizzas and Doughnuts, Pastry and Pies, and Dessert. There’s nothing especially revolutionary or new in these sections. The subtitle is “My best ever recipes for the classics” and that’s exactly what this delivers. So if you want a surprising take on ginger nuts or a revolutionary way of making croissants, this is not the book for you. Instead, I would class this as your second baking book. It’s not the book for a novice; there are some assumptions about techniques and so on that would stump someone who’s never baked. But for a person who enjoys baking and wants a book with a good variety of recipes – ones to make all the time and ones for occasional adventures – this is pretty good.

What I’ve made:

  • No cakes yet! Just haven’t had the inspiration. But I have my eye on the Chocolate Orange Banana Bread.
  • Biscuits: Hazelnut and Apricot Cookies are excellent and will go into steady rotation. The Double Chocolate Chip Cookies were fine, but probably not better than others I already make. The ginger biscuits were exactly what they should be. I’m quite interested to try his scones, just to see how his method works.
  • Bread: I made his baguettes! Which was time consuming although not a lot of work. I think I over-proved at one stage? They still tasted ok, just not a great shape. Excellent tip: I froze a couple, and then defrosted and ‘refreshed’ for a few minutes in the oven, and they were really good!
  • Pizzas and Doughnuts: haven’t been making pizza recently (don’t ask; we haven’t found the required bits for the pizza oven…) and I cannot come at deep-frying doughnuts.
  • Pastry and Pies: I love a pie, so I’m looking forward to making some of these; it just hasn’t happened yet. The recipes look excellent and fairly doable; I’ll probably even make the pastry, at least a couple of times, to see how that goes. I HAVE, though, made the danishes! Just to say that I have, and that I can. I wasn’t in love with the pastry – it seemed a bit too bready, and not flaky enough, so I’m not sure if that’s me or the recipe. It’s a long and drawn-out process, but not too hard. The one thing I was cranky about was making the creme patisserie. The recipe says mix ‘until thickened’. Now I’ve been making a lot of custard, so I assumed I was going to that consistency and it would thicken a bit more when rested. Nope. I ended up having to warm it again to thicken it further, because it went absolutely everywhere when I tried to put it on the pastry. This is one reason why I don’t think this is a novice’s book.
  • Dessert: I made the meringue roulade (with berries, not mango). And it’s easy as, and very tasty, so this is going on the make-again list for sure..

Cleopatra’s Daughter, by Jane Draycott

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in November 2022.

Ever since I read a biography of Beregaria – the only English queen who never even visited England – I have been very keen on biographies of women who have just been overlooked. (It wasn’t Berengaria’s fault; she was married to Richard I while he was on his way to crusade, then he got kidnapped and then he was off fighting in France, so… she never got across the Channel.)

Did I know Cleopatra VII had a daughter? Yes. That she was taken as a prisoner by Octavian back to Rome? Yes, although it wasn’t as immediately accessible knowledge. Did I know that this daughter then went on to marry Juba. king of Mauretania, and that she ruled there with him for many years? NO I DID NOT. And I kind of feel a bit aggrieved that I got to be 42 without knowing this.

Draycott has written a quite splendid biography, especially considering the limitation of the source material available. One of the things I particularly like about her style is that she’s not pretending knowledge that she doesn’t have. The reality is that there’s very little information about Cleopatra Selene’s childhood, either in Alexandria or in Rome; so Draycott presents what is known for children and families in those places in those times, indicating that this is a good estimation. I like this approach a lot.

Having said that the material is limited, I was surprised at the sources that do exist – see above, not knowing anything about Cleopatra Selene’s adulthood. There are (probably) statues (identifying ancients in statue is notoriously hard); there are coins; and there are some written references, too. So it’s not all a guessing game ; and when Draycott does make some leaps (like Zenobia maybe being a descendent??), she’s pretty clear about the tenuous nature of the links.

It’s likely that both Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexander Helios (yes, yes, Mark Antony, you have a great sense of humour AND hubris), and their younger brother Ptolemy, both died as young boys – Draycott makes a compelling case that this was probably from natural causes, given that Rome was a malaria-ridden swamp and that there doesn’t seem to have been a reason to kill the boys and leave the girl alive. Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, also a sort-of captive in Rome, and then they’re sent off to rule Mauretania – possibly, Draycott argues, with Cleopatra Selene taking an active part as co-ruler, given the example she’d been set by her own mother. She seems to have lived there for around 20 years, although there’s no definite date of her death recorded anywhere.

Finally, I particularly liked Draycott’s handling of the question of Cleopatra Selene’s ‘ethnicity’. That modern understandings (or imaginings) of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different from what people of her time would have thought about themselves or others, that it can’t be resolved what colour her skin was given the lack of definite knowledge about Cleopatra VII’s ancestry, and so on. I think she deals sympathetically with the idea of Cleopatra being ‘Black’, within the context of both not knowing for sure and those ancient people having different notions of what it means; she does make the firm point that Juba himself was (what today would be called) a Black African, and therefore their children were ‘mixed race’ and ‘mixed ethnicity’ (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, African). I like that Draycott is aware of these issues and isn’t pretending that such discussions don’t exist, or that they are somehow irrelevant to the discourse she’s part of.

Well written, thoughtful, and giving a broad understanding of both Cleopatra Selene as a human (as much as can be from the limited sources) and her context in time and place. This is what I want from a biography.

The Curious History of the Heart

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.

I am conflicted about this book. It has some really interesting points… but it also makes what I regard as some silly, and some egregious, historical mistakes. The author isn’t a trained historian but he is writing about history so it really needed to not have those problems.

So. Firstly, in the timeline at the start, it says that someone ‘discovered’ the stethoscope. Uh, no. Maybe this is something that will be corrected before publication, but my copy doesn’t say this is an uncorrected proof. Minor, I know, but annoying. Also minor but annoying is saying that the Greeks “began practising medicine around 700 BCE” (p47), because I’m pretty sure that people were medicating themselves and setting bones in the place we call Greece well before that date, even if they did see illness as divine punishment; Asclepius exists as a god before that time.

Less minor and more than annoying is Figueredo’s insistence on the term “the Dark Ages”, which he seems to use to cover the entirety of what is more usually called the Middle Ages. I reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ for any period – it’s completely outdated and ridiculous – and I don’t remember ever seeing it used to refer to Europe beyond about 1000 CE? Certainly not after the 1200s. But on p26 he says Europe “fell into the Dark Ages for a thousand years” and that there was “a prohibition on scientific discovery”. I’m not going to say that the Church was throwing its arms open to science in this time, but at the same time – it’s just wrong to say that ‘science’ (whatever we mean by that) was in abeyance for a millennium in Europe. He also talks about the fall of the Roman Empire being in 476 CE, which is one of those superbly Western-oriented statements that must make historians of Byzantium tear their hair out.

One of the good things about the history part of this book is that it is not entirely Euro-centric. There’s discussion about how Hindu writings viewed the heart (around whether the heart was the seat of the soul etc), and quite a lot about Islamic views too. This latter actually leads to one of the other annoying statements, which is that without Islamic translations of ancient texts “the Renaissance in Europe would have begun with no past knowledge to build upon” (p72). Which is hilarious because it’s horse/cart: without those texts there IS no Renaissance. ANYWAY. He does give credit to the Islamic scholars so that’s excellent. There’s also some discussion of Mesoamerican attitudes, too, although perhaps a little too much focus on human sacrifice (which I thought was a bit more doubted these days, but I am definitely not an expert in that area).

My final annoyance with the historical aspect of the book is a linguistic one. There’s not very much discussion – or even acknowledgement – of the difficulties of translation around such words as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ (as distinct from ‘that lump of stuff in your head’). Again, not the author’s area, but when you’re discussing cultural differences between whether emotions are seated in the heart or the brain, these things matter. So I found that disappointing. And this was only made worse by the start of the chapter about the word itself (chapter 28), where he states that the Indo-European word itself derives from the Greek and the Latin… which is another horse/cart problem, given how much earlier the Indo-European is. Again, maybe that will be fixed before publication, because it’s pretty egregious.

All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t completely true. I do think it’s an interesting overview of the place of the heart in ancient societies, and coming into the European medieval period. I think that the modern sections are fascinating, which realistically makes sense given that the author is a surgeon and therefore the modern science of the heart is, actually, his area. He writes well, and in a manner that is accessible for the non-doctor. I had no idea about the modern understanding of the heart-brain connection, or that there are neurone in the heart, so all of that was fascinating – the idea that the heart is a little brain is wild!

Maybe it’s mean, but I think the historical aspect needed to be treated a bit more seriously. If you want the book to be seen as a significant contribution to understanding the place of the heart in human culture, it needs to be as faultless as possible. This could be that, but it’s not quite there.

Gate Sinister, Tansy Rayner Roberts

I received this book from the author, who is a friend of mine… for which reason if I didn’t like, I just wouldn’t have written a review! It comes out in January 2023.

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Tansy’s work. Hilariously, I was a fan long before I met her: I read Splashdance Silver at uni, and THEN I met her a convention and was completely overwhelmed and THEN she turned out to be, like, a real person.

ANYWAY.

This lovely novella has a lot of Tansy Trademarks. The story skips along at a smart pace, with the occasional aside to explain something. There is a very good line in banter – the sort of repartee that can only exist in stories because no one can be that good on their feet, and is one reason why I like reading these sorts of stories because I dream of being that fast on my feet. It’s a little bit dark, and honest about human nature while ultimately striking a hopeful note.

Tansy has a good line in using kind-of-historical settings for her work. The Creature Court series used her wealth of knowledge about the Roman Republic and Empire. Here, she’s using Victorian England, and giving it a fantastic twist – love potions are real, fairies are too but they’ve been banished, magic is real. She even uses a governess, and I know for a fact that she prefers Wuthering Heights over Jane Eyre (she’s wrong). Chapter headings lean into Georgian/Victorian styles, with headings like “In Which Toadstools Are False, Storybooks Are Essential, and a House has its Secrets” – which also implies the gothic overtones, because houses are creepy.

Overall, highly enjoyable, and I will take more stories about Flavia and her wards any day.

Seasonal Fears, by Seanan McGuire

I received this book from the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out now.

Officially this is a standalone novel set in the same universe asn Middlegame (which apparently I never reviewed). And officially that’s true; I haven’t read Middlegame since whatever year it was published and up for a Hugo, and I have a bad enough memory that it’s not quite like I never read it, but close. It would be more accurate to call it a companion novel, though – the other adjective used in the press release. Because some of the characters from the first do appear here, in the second; it’s not mandatory to know who they are, but I think it probably helps a lot to have some knowledge of how this world works. Although maybe not, since Middlegame does throw the reader into the hectic world of alchemy and anthropomorphised aspects of the universe.

Where the first novel was about trying to compel aspects of the universe to take human avatars, Seasonal Fears is kind of where the alchemists got their ideas: Summer and Winter have been incarnate for as long as humans have been projecting their humanity onto faceless and terrifying natural processes. So Harry and Melanie get caught up in an ages-old quest/epic/adventure. They have been living one for most of their lives, actually: she’s got a congenital heart condition and no one expected to live to 17; he’s been in love with her (and she with him) since they first met. So that’s one narrative they’re living; then another gets shoved on top. There’s road tripping, and meeting people who variously help and hinder, and dealing with the changes happening to them whether they like or not.

So it’s a coming of age novel, yes, with that fantastically wonderful Seanan McGuire touch. There’s nice banter, and a narrator who is sometimes ruthless and sometimes unbearably caring, and characters making bad choices for good reasons (and vice versa). There are parts of this novel that are truly vicious: there isn’t just one candidate for the seasons to become incarnate in… . And yet, and yet, there is also a glorious hopefulness. Not the sort of hopefulness that means everything will be easy and okay and no one will ever be hurt: but the sort of hopefulness that means you can live through, and with, difficulty; that life is worth it; that the world is worth the pain because there are good things in it.

I really enjoyed it.

Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8)

Read courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in January 2023 (sorry).

It’s a Wayward Children novella. It’s always an exciting moment.

One thing I that both makes me happy and sad with some of the recent novellas is that they’re standalone. I love that they provide new entry points for readers, and also that McGuire is exploring such interesting variations on the ‘there are Doors that lead to new worlds and young kids who need them can sometimes find them’ thing.

The only reason I’m sad is that I love many of the original cast and I will always want to know more about them. But that’s definitely about me and not about the books.

So! If this is your first Wayward Children, how awesome! And if it’s your 8th, how awesome is this series??

As McGuire herself does in the Author’s Note, I will point out that the lead character deals with an adult gaslighting and grooming them. McGuire wants very much to let readers know that Antsy runs before anything actually happens, and I deeply appreciate this reassurance. I also appreciated, as the story progressed, the narrator noting that Antsy’s fear of not being believed was in fact unfounded. Which is of little use to Antsy, of course, but perhaps of enormous use to a reader.

Antsy: unhappy at home, runs away, finds a Door… which leads her to a shop with a talking bird and a very old woman, which turns out to be a shop where lost things turn up (yes, all your odd socks; kittens and my favourite frog ear cuff, too, I expect). The bird and the woman and now Antsy catalogue what turns up, help people find lost things if they can, and sometimes sell things when they know they won’t be claimed. Many Doors open from the junk shop – which is a very different premise from what happens in most of the other stories – and Antsy goes through to visit markets and to explore. It is, of course, an adventure… and things do, of course, turn out to be not quite as they appear.

I love Antsy; I thoroughly enjoyed the story; McGuire is still doing great work in this series.

Perfume, by Megan Volpert

I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $19.99.

I adore the Object Lessons series. It’s such a magic idea: take ordinary objects and explore them from as wide-ranging a set of perspectives as possible, and suddenly you show (what we all sort of know) that the ordinary hides an enormous amount of the un-ordinary.

They’re teeny little books – not even as tall as my handspan, and I don’t have huge hands. The cover is delightful, the overall design is lovely, and as an object I just love it. And the contents match that delight.

Volpert has written eight chapters: Science, Literature, Space, Time, Technology, Performance, Self and Other. They include a lot of research – into individual fragrances, the science of smelling (and not), the history of perfume production, the place of scent in narratives, and philosophy as well – plus a lot of the personal. (There’s an interesting moment where Volpert talks about the ‘loud’ fragrances she wore as a teacher, during the height of Covid while students and teachers were masked up… and then someone pointed out to me that if people could smell her perfume, they were probably wearing their masks wrong, and I was a bit dismayed.) Volpert talks about her own experiences with scent, and attitudes, and how her use and understanding of perfume have reflected her understanding of herself.

As well as being intrigued by the subject, I really enjoyed Volpert’s writing. The nose as “a helmet covering the outermost portion of one’s brain” is an image that’s likely to hang around as long as a 15 year old boy’s overdosing on Brut.

I have been ambivalent towards perfume all my life. I was gifted a perfume in my late teens, and that one scent has remained the one I’ve used for… an awful long time, partly because I like it and partly because I was both too lazy and too scared to go exploring other options. This book has challenged my thinking around what perfume means, and what it is for.

Off the back of reading half this book, I am going to a perfume masterclass from a local perfumery, and I’m pretty intrigued. I may not become an everyday-perfume-wearer, but I’m open to the idea.

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).

This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.

I loved it. Clearly.

I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.

As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).

As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.

And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.

It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.

The Future is Female! Volume 2: 1970s

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in October 2022.

Lisa Yaszek has put together another very fine set of stories that highlight the variety of science fiction that has been produced by women, this time in the 1970s. Arranged chronologically by publication date, this fiction has some stories that are angry, and some that are more on the whimsical side; some that (I think) could only have been written by a woman, and others that don’t particularly reflect a gendered authorship (and then there’s the James Tiptree, Jr). Some feel like classic SF, others are more experimental. I didn’t love them all. As a set, this is a really amazing way to showcase the variety of what women can write and have written.

Some I’ve read before: “When It Changed” (Joanna Russ) always gets me and I hope will always be discussed as part of science fiction in general, and not ever just relegated to ‘battle of the sexes’ conversations. I don’t understand why we don’t talk more about “The Girl who was Plugged In” (Tiptree) when we discuss cyberpunk; “The Screwfly Solution” (Raccoona Sheldon) is always completely horrific, and so is “Wives” (Lisa Tuttle), for very different reasons. I have always loved “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (Vonda N. McIntyre) for its exploration of love and compassion – and same, in some ways, with “The Day before the Revolution” (Ursula K. Le Guin), although the latter is even more poignant; I always need to just stop and stare into the distance for a moment when I read it.

Of the others, there were several that stood out. I’ve read very little by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; “Frog Pond” was very nicely paced, and the reveals built up beautifully. Kate Wilhelm’s “The Funeral” was quietly terrifying as the state of America was slowly revealed – and these two, next to each other, were particularly distressing to read in the current state of the world. “The Anthropologist” (Kathleen M Sidney) feels in some ways like it’s in conversation with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, with its exploration of living between two very different worlds. And as someone who occasionally feels sad for Curiosity and Voyager etc, never being able to come home, “View from a Height” (Joan D Vinge) was something of a gut-punch. Gorgeous, but a bit harrowing.

… clearly, I think this anthology works for both people with some knowledge of the state of the 1970s field, and I believe it would also work for those who want an introduction to 1970s SF in general. It’s nicely comprehensive.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??

Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.

Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.

Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.

Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.

Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.

This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.

Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.