Object Lessons: Pregnancy Test
I received this book courtesy of the publisher, Bloomsbury.
I have never personally interacted with a pregnancy test, and yet – as Weingarten discusses here – I still know the basics of what one looks like. The appearance of the ‘wand’, and what it means on tv show when a woman is in a bathroom watching a little plastic stick, is ubiquitous in Western media. As with all Object Lessons, though, Weingarten shows just how complicated and not-straightforward this objet is.
This is another brilliant instalment in the Object Lessons series. The author goes through the history of pregnancy tests and the development of its most common appearance today. She also problematises the whole concept of pregnancy and how the simple yes/no really isn’t that simple, and challenges the idea of pregnancy testing at home being an unassailably good thing.
I loved that Weingarten took the idea of pregnancy testing back before the 20th century, in a brief tour of various cultures have sought to confirm what at least some women suspect before external confirmation. The discussion of the medicalisation of women’s experiences is something I’ve read around before, and continues here, as Weingarten points out the ways in which doctors etc present women’s bodies as ‘mysterious’ and needing external (usually male) deciphering. Coming into the 20th century, I had NO IDEA how early scientific testing happened – using mice, rabbits, frogs and toads (… the mammals not surviving the experience).
Then there’s the pregnancy test in media, from Murphy Brown on to The Handmaid’s Tale… and also what could arguably be called the weaponisation of the test: people forcibly or covertly tested for pregnancy, and then their subsequent experiences determined by the results. And the fact that yes/no doesn’t actually cover all the possibilities: that a chemical pregnancy might give a positive result; that miscarriages can happen really early on and without a test, you would never know you were pregnant anyway…
Weingarten, as with other Object Lesson writers, is coming at this topic both personally – having used pregnancy tests herself – and academically. She brings the two perspectives together thoughtfully, honestly, and engagingly.
Every time I read one of these, I come away with a better, and more nuanced, understanding of the world.
The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl
I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.
So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)
What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.
I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.
The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
IN THEORY, this book should be right up my alley. Agitating for women’s suffrage! in an alt world where witchcraft is real! but banned! and you Alexandra Pope and the Sisters Grimm! And I’d already read and loved Ten Thousand Doors of January.
… but when I started it, pretty soon after it came out, I bounced right off. It was something about the jagged relationship between the sisters, I think (I have a sister. We’re fine, and always have been). I stopped after about 50 pages. But I didn’t give it away, because I really wanted to go back to it.
This year I want to get through my physical TBR, and so I went back to this. And this time, I did not bounce off (I had also been assured that the sisters’ relationships were more complex and became slightly less jagged than they are at first). And it is, absolutely, a gem of a book. I loved it. I loved all of the relationships, and the worldbuilding, and the gradual reveal of everything that’s going on, and the slight left twist from our world. The use of children’s rhymes and the reclaiming of “old wives’ tales”, the terrible cost and value of love, and everything else, frankly.
High Times in the Low Parliament
Me, two chapters in: does ‘stoner’ mean something other than what I think it means? I’m confused.
A “lesbian stoner fantasy” set around an acrimonious European Parliament – dysfunctional thanks in large part to the Anglanders – with fairies who call humans ‘leggers’ and are more likely to pinch than party with them. This novella is hilarious.
If Parliament can’t make a decision, then the fairies are going to drown everyone involved – and as an Australian, I can tell you that the spiteful attitudes of the deputies, and their refusal to cooperate, all very much struck a chord. Enter Lana, a scribe with good penmanship and a winning way with the ladies, who gets dragooned into being the equivalent of Hansard. She spends a significant amount of time seeing bluebirds and flowers courtesy of various substances (it’s unclear whether these are illicit or not), makes some unlikely friends and, as the title suggests, has some high times in the parliamentary setting.
It’s not claiming to make big statements about the way politics or parliaments work, how to improve them, or how to get factions to stop being factions. It is a rollicking fun time with some very funny moments, some poignant ones, and a pace that left me breathless.
River Cottage: Great Salads
I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now.
So I’ve had this book in my kitchen for a few months now, and I just… keep not getting around to reviewing it. Obviously. And there are a few reasons for that. December and January were a hectic time for a variety of reasons, and although summer does mean salads I only used this a couple of times. Which leads into the other reason for why it’s taken me so long to review it: I haven’t been that inspired by it. That is, I like the idea of what this book is doing, but a lot of the specific recipes just… haven’t grabbed me. And I do think this is a me-thing, not the fault of the book.
Partly, I think it’s because this is a British book. There are ingredients in here that I either don’t know, that would be hard to get, or that I just don’t love. Buckwheat groats; gooseberries; chicory; kohlrabi… they’re not in everything, but I do find it off-putting when I browse through. So that’s one thing – a me-thing. I’m also not a massive fan of sweet things in salad, which is totally a me thing, and the idea of raspberries with tomato just seems appalling! Perhaps, too, I’ve just been a bit sluggish (heh) with salads lately. As I flick through, I am reminded that there really are salads in here that I would enjoy. So I should try them.
A few that I have tried, and really enjoyed:
- Zucchini, toasted buckwheat, goat’s cheese and dill: didn’t use the buckwheat… don’t remember what I used instead, actually. Hmm. Hmm. Maybe chopped almonds? It was good, anyway. Zucchini and goat’s cheese FTW.
- Fennel, celery and apple with creamy almond dressing. Delicious.
- Barbecued leeks, spelt and sunflower seeds: BBQ leeks! So good. Again, didn’t use spelt; think I used barley instead.
- Charred zucchini, broad beans, snow peas and fresh curds: the fresh curds made me impatient; I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again – didn’t think they lent anything much to the salad.
Yeh yeh, I just need to challenge myself, and actually try more of the recipes. If you’re interested in varied salad recipes, then I suspect this will be a good book for you; there’s definitely combinations I hadn’t thought of, and many of them really do intrigue me (cavolo nero with peach – hmm – and cashews and goat’s cheese… curried roots with pearled barley and parsley…).
Jewel Box: a collection from E. Lily Yu
I’m afraid this is coming from Erewhon Books in October 2023. Which is a long time to wait (I read it c/ the publisher and NetGalley) and TLDR: it’s going to be worth waiting for.
I have a bad habit: I forget the names of short story writers much more easily, and much faster, than I forget the names of novelists. I don’t think it’s because I value one more than the other, but perhaps reading things in anthologies I pay slightly less attention to the author’s name.
Whatever the reason, I always forget that E. Lily Yu is a spectacular author whose work I love very, very much. Fortunately, this collection has reminded me of that fact with all the subtlety of a shovel to the face. Pretty much every story in this collection is wonderful and thought-provoking and I am beyond happy that I got to read it and see all of this wonderful work in one place.
A few highlights:
“The View from the Top of the Stair” – a woman (I think) whose great passion in life is staircases, who gets an inheritance that allows her to indulge her passion, and what life can be like when you get to be at least somewhat fulfilled. The passion is never mocked, it’s not a tragic story of ‘never what you wish for’, and it’s also not at all what you expect.
“The Time Invariance of Snow” – one of the stories I remembered that I had already read, as I was reading. A truly remarkable spin on the Snow Queen: it opens with the heading “The Devil and The Physicist”, which gives a small indication of how Yu is approaching the ideas.
“Courtship Displays of the American Birder” – heartbreaking and beautiful and lyrical.
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” – witches and knights and dragons, but not at all as you think you know them.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” – after reading this one, I had to go stare at a wall for a while. Friendship and cancer and unicorns, going on when everything is awful and finding magic in the mundane.
“Ilse, who saw clearly” – is not the story I was expecting from the opening; stolen eyes and a girl who doesn’t fit in, learning a craft and then still not fitting in… another one that left me unable to just blithely go on to the next story.
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” – almost certainly my introduction to Yu’s work. Wasps who are conquerors and map-makers, bees who get conquered and some of them become anarchists… it doesn’t tell you everything about Yu’s work but I suspect if this one doesn’t work for you, then I suspect her work in general won’t.
This collection is magnificent. “Jewel Box” indeed.
Dead Country: a new Craft novel by Max Gladstone
I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out in March 2023.
I love the Craft series, and this is a really, really good Craft story.
It’s also quite unlike any of the other Craft books… although I should add that it’s been long enough since I actually read the first books that I had to go double-check that “Tara Abernathy” was actually a name I recognised. Which tells us two things:
a) sometimes I have a bad memory, but actually that can be good with things like this because it means I get to enjoy them in a different way, and
b) it means that you can definitely read this without having read the other books. The facts around what the Craft is (a variation on magic) and what the world is like (frankly a bit screwy) are all obvious enough from the get-go, as is Tara’s personality and general background.
Having said that it’s a really good Craft story, it’s actually quite different from the other books (ok, maybe from what I remember…). They are set in cities, and with high stakes in play, and quite an assortment of characters, as well as a fair bit of politics/ legal wrangling. This, though… the setting here is super compressed. Tara has come home, to the small and suspicious town she got away from on the edge of the Badlands. And pretty much the entire story is set right there, in that town: there’s Tara’s arrival on foot, and then an excursion into the Badlands, and that’s it. No bright lights. No ‘I’m the ruler and I say so’. There’s a threat to her town, and even though most of them don’t really know what to think of her and some have treated her badly, that’s not something Tara is going to put up with.
Gladstone’s sense of place is wonderful, and makes me wonder whether he’s spent some time in a small town himself. There’s all the cliches, of course, about small towns and the lack of privacy, the suspicion of difference and outsiders – my Nan moved to her husband’s small town when they married, at about age 19, and 60 years later there were still some people who regarded her as an incomer. And Gladstone uses some of those tropes, but not at all in a mean way. He shows it as the reality it is: that those aspects can be both damaging and comforting. That secrets can still exist, for good or ill, and that outsiders can still find a place – but it might have a cost. So yeah, I loved that aspect of the story a lot.
In fact, I really liked this whole novel. Tara is complex and conflicted and also highly competent. The other characters are distinct and generally interesting – I’m intrigued to see what happens next with Dawn, Tara’s maybe-protege, in particular. For all that it’s set in a small town, and there’s no suggestion that the events here will have a significant impact on the major centres of power (well… mostly…), there’s also no suggestion that it’s not important to deal with the raiders and secure the town’s safety. Too often big stories ignore towns like this one.
Think I’m going to go back and read the Craft again now.