Monthly Archives: October, 2022

Doll, by Maria Teresa Hart

I read this thanks to NetGalley; it’s out in November.

Is this book responsible for me having the only two lines that I know of “Barbie and the Rockers” stuck in my head for days? Why yes it is. And no, I haven’t forgiven the author for that yet.

I did have a few Barbies as a child; I was deprived of a Cabbage Patch kid; and I had a bridal doll, inherited from my mother, with whom I never played – she was really for looking at rather than anything else. I was probably more interested in playing with the My Little Ponies, I think – hair long enough to do interesting plaits with – but I don’t remember that well. I guess I played a bit with them? But dolls held little really fascination for me. This book, though, is truly fascinating – it’s a worthy addition to the Object Lessons set.

Hart does a lot in a few short pages. She explores the history of dolls as objects – their uses and their manufacture; she discusses their roles in reinforcing gender norms for girls and women, as well as exploring the realities of how little girls do actually play with their Barbies (is it a surprise these days to anyone to learn that Barbies tend to have a great deal of sex?). She looks at the racial aspects – the first black Barbie was a sidekick, and it took ages for non-white Barbies to have any sort of equal billing, and they’re usually still solitary examples of a skin colour rather than being the whole range of things like white-skinned Barbie is allowed to be.

Did I know that Sleepover Barbie came with miniature scales and a teeny book called “How to Lose Weight”, which recommends only “Don’t eat”? Heck no I didn’t. This is the stuff of nightmares… and makes me wonder if I was doing sleepovers all wrong (or, more likely, all right).
I also didn’t know about BINA48, “modelled after the real human being Bina Aspen, a Black woman who was married to Martine Rothblatt, a prominent CEO in there biotech industry. BINA48 was created using Aspen’s memories” p26) and this is ALSO the stuff of nightmares, in my opinion. Hart goes into a discussion of avatars as part of the doll-world, which is intriguing, as well as androids.

Another spectacular part of this series. So much packed into such a small package, and yet so immensely readable as well.

Still a bit cranky about the Barbie song though.

Sewer, by Jessica Leigh Hester

I read this via NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.

OK, first thing to note is that you probably want a relatively strong stomach to read all of this… and you definitely don’t want to read it while eating. While it’s not revolting, there are some descriptions of sewers and fatbergs that are not the most pleasant of reading experiences.

Secondly, stop flushing wipes. No, seriously. Even the ones that say they’re flushable. Stop flushing them. They’re not really flushable. When you put something down the toilet it doesn’t ACTUALLY, magically, disappear. It still needs to go somewhere. And wipes? Oh, they do not disintegrate and become harmless like you might imagine. Stop. Flushing. Wipes.

This book is really remarkable. As with the best of the Object Lesson books, it’s personal and it’s deeply researched and it’s fascinating. Hester is convincing in her argument that sewers are vital to understand because they help us understand our past, as well as consider our future. She is also adamant that investing in sewer infrastructure is something that has been lacking (and I’m completely terrified and appalled by some of the stories about that) and is vitally important for our future. No one wants a return to typhoid and cholera in places like London. Which also means that those places without good, sturdy, reliable sewers – ones that DON’T JUST EJECT WASTE INTO THE OPEN WATER – absolutely need financial assistance in getting that done. If you don’t think that’s a priority… you’re wrong. Simple as that.

Highly recommended for the civil engineer in your life, or the person who’s always asking ‘why is it like that?”, or the person with the more-scatalogical-than-necessary sense of humour.


The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in January 2023, from WW Norton.

Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts – appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on – and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there’s something lacking in the second.

The introduction to the concept of “the Middle Ages” is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society – particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99% – developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through ‘pop culture’ like ballads and Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a “farmer’s wife” is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly).

I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn’t be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead… and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It’s painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together – think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn’t feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other.

Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too – the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does’t detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.

Persiana Everyday, Sabrina Ghayour

I received this from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; $39.99.

Soooo I received this a while ago, and haven’t got around to reviewing it because I think “I’ll make just one more thing and THEN I’ll review it” – like reviewing it means I’ll never cook from it again, or something. I was very excited to receive this as a review copy; I own every other Sabrina book, so I was always going to get it… this is just a lovely bonus 😀

I have loved Sabrina’s recipes since Persiana. I would be pretty happy just cooking from her set every week, to be honest. I had been a bit worried that this would feel like a rehash of Persiana (because of the name), or her second-last book Simply… but really I shouldn’t have worried. There’s a glorious new set of recipes, often making use of her Persian roots but not always – she’s a cook with a wide range of interests, and she’s got a spectacular sense of taste/flavour combinations. She’s also not that interested in showy cooking; something I loved from her Instagram in 2020 was a set of cooking vids using pantry staples that really were mostly staples – at least for someone who likes cooking and so has a few herbs and spices. Plus, she’s not too fussed about whether you follow a recipe with micrometre precision – swap things, etc etc. And finally, another glorious aspect of this entire book is that every recipe includes “go well with…” and then gives another 2-3 recipes from the book, and page numbers.

I love this book a lot. Chapters include Small Plates; Salads for All Seasons; Poultry and Meat; Fish and Seafood; Vegetable Love; Carbs of All Kinds; and Something Sweet.

Things I have made:

  • Halloumi fatteh, which reminded me how much I adore tahini+yoghurt on meat;
  • Meatball and mushroom stroganoff, which is a genius way of making stroganoff although REALLY, BRITS? YOU EAT STROGANOFF ON HOT CHIPS??
  • Kofta, orzo, and tomato traybake – oh, put the pasta IN WITH the sauce and bake it?? GENIUS;
  • Lamb, date and chilli stew – straight to the “every winter” recipe pile;
  • Fragrant roasted [fish] – I used swordfish, because I don’t even know if you can get haddock here;
  • Pan-fried spiced prawns;
  • Sweet potato, sage and feta tart, which only didn’t work as well as I think it should because we don’t seem to have the same size ready-made puff pastry as they do in England;
  • Spicy nutty cauliflower – basically satay cauli, which is brilliant;
  • Sticky spiced harissa and lime roasted carrots, with feta and barberries, and really you don’t need anything other than that name, right?
  • Za’atar, leek, potato and Gruyere frittata;
  • Yoghurt, marjoram and pul biber flatbread – which is now my favourite yoghurt flatbread, although I’ve usually used oregano instead of marjoram;
  • Rhubarb, rose and pistachio trifle pots, which are AMAZING;
  • Chewy pistachio bites – now I know what to do whenever I have an egg white sitting around;
  • and, last but in NO way least, tahini and chocolate marmar [marble] cake.

… did I mention it comes with a ribbon? This book is just glorious.

Stroller, by Amanda Parrish Morgan

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 20 October 2022.

Of the four Object Lessons books I’ve read so far, this is by far the most personal. It’s really quite remarkably personal, actually, and I admire Morgan for what she says about herself to illustrate the points she’s making more broadly about society.

While the focus of the book is the stroller (or pram), this is very much a book about motherhood, mothering, expectations on and of mothers, and how consumer goods like the stroller fit within that. I am not a mother, but even I know some of the pressures and expectations from society imposed on, and internalised by, mothers. Morgan describes herself as someone who didn’t expect to be a mother from early on; and as someone whose identity was strongly tied to being a runner. Both of these things influenced the way she perceived maternity, and the stroller. Her early recounting of telling a (not-mother) friend that she’s going to try and have a baby, and the quite awful reaction from that friend (“That’ll be the end of all your running”, p6), sets up a lot of what Morgan picks up through the book (and made me worriedly think back to how I’ve reacted to child-announcements from friends. I don’t think I’ve ever been that awful?). Morgan relates her experiences of juggling not wanting to fall into the ‘must have everything’ trap, to not be swayed by alarmist or aspirational advertising. She talks about juggling routines, two preschools, her own desire to run (between two preschools, with a double stroller); and she relays the commentary she received from onlookers, too, which honestly just made me mad.

Morgan mixes in academic discussion, too: of how American society emphasises the ‘production’ part of ‘reproduction’, with the mother as unskilled worker; the use of the word ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ and what they suggest about the relationship between mother and child and the whole process of the second leaving the first. And then how baby products get tied into identity, and parenting strategies, and what all of those things mean and say about you and your choices. It emphasised a lot of things for me: just how harshly mothers are treated sometimes, how many minefields need to be navigated, and how unapproachable so many of our cities and spaces are. Also, my goodness it’s harder in America than in Australia (paid maternity leave, etc).

It’s not quite the book I was expecting – there’s not a huge in-depth history of strollers and their alternatives, for instance, although there is some – but it was nonetheless engrossing and… well, I want to say enjoyable, but that’s not quite the right word. I read it quickly and with fascination.