Monthly Archives: August, 2022

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.