Category Archives: Books

The Written World: review

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.

The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.

Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.

There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.

Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?

Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.

Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.

Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”

In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).

Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.

The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.

Daphne Park, Queen of Spies

Unknown.jpegThe title is misleading, because she was never the head of MI6 or anything. But she was one of the few women working in MI6 when it first got going and she did end up pretty senior, so I guess it’s what you get when you’re trying to come up with a catchy title.

Anyway, Daphne Park sounds like one helluva woman. Grew up in Tanganyika in the 30s, stayed with aunts to go to school in the UK, got a job in World War 2 that was kind of undercover and went from there, with some missteps along the way, to being an actual spy in MI6. She was a product of her time: deeply suspicious of the USSR for her whole life, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and probably someone I would have argued with a lot by the end of her life. But she also seems to have been fearless, determined, entrepreneurial, ruthless, and generally pretty amazing as a spy. She was eventually made a peer! Can’t help but wonder what she and Gertrude Bell would have made of one another, what with their getting into other nations’ business and all.

As well as this being a biography of a remarkable woman (remarkable in what she did, and remarkable in being very rare for her time), it’s also an exploration of the role of spies during the Cold War. There were several moments where I vocally expressed my displeasure, for instance regarding the international interference in Congo’s first elections. I’m horrified by what the UK, and the US and others, felt they had a right to do in those third-party countries. So it’s unlikely you’ll come away from this thinking Park was always in the right… but she certainly did her job. Sometimes, above and beyond. And, while she didn’t quite do it backwards and in high heels like Ginger Rogers, she was definitely battling that good old sexism for pretty much her entire career.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

imageDid your brain go totally Roald Dahl when you saw the title? Mine did. Anyway, this novella was sent to me by the publisher,, at no cost. It will be available for you to read from 13 March, 2018 (which is this year!).

Somehow, don’t ask me how, I managed not to read “The Waters of Versailles,” Robson’s highly regarded short story from… last year? The year before? I don’t know how I managed not to read it, given everyone else was raving about it… I just didn’t get to it. I’m going to get to it now, because I’ve read this and it’s excellent.

Seriously, just go pre-order it. Do you like the paradoxes of time travel? Do you like cranky old women being cranky and smart? Do you like a bit of ancient Mesopotamia? GO. PRE-ORDER.

It’s well into the future, things haven’t gone so great for humanity but they’re maybe kinda improving, if people manage to focus on what’s relevant. Time travel is… probably not relevant. But it’s consuming a lot of attention. But maybe it could be used for something relevant? That’s what Minh is hoping, anyway, as she prepares a brief for an intriguing new job.

The world that Robson has developed here is suuuuper developed for such a short story; as in, I wouldn’t be surprised to read at least a novel just fleshing out the things that she hints at here in terms of economies and habitats and generational attitudes and… yeh. That bit alone is completely absorbing; reminded me a bit of Iain M Banks’ civilisations. And then you add time travel.

The opening is somewhat disconcerting, as there’s clearly two separate stories being told – one with gods and monsters, one with technology. Very quickly the links between the two become evident but exactly how things will resolve is not at all evident. I really enjoyed the way that Robson played off the two different civilisational points of view. I also really enjoyed the different characters she employs. Minh is my favourite, of course: how could she not be with her crankiness and her competence and her bloody-mindedness? But her companions are also great and offer excellent, necessary and important alternatives to Minh’s point of view.

I am well impressed with this novella.

The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, AgoraUnknown.jpeg

The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.

Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.

Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.

John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.

Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.

One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).

This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. This review first appeared in the History Teachers of VictoriaUnknown.jpeg journal Agora.

If you are especially keen on the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, like me you might have bought the classic John Julius Norwich trilogy. Again if you are like me, you may have got to the end of the second book and thought, “No more!” Despite that, the city at the heart of that empire (thrice-named, eat your heart out New York) has always enthralled me – and, Bettany Hughes suggests, has fascinated, enticed, and aggravated people for a good few thousand years.

Firstly: don’t be put off by the page count. Those 800 pages include an extensive timeline, detailed (and interesting but not imperative) endnotes, a thorough bibliography and an index. At 600 pages, with often quite short chapters, this is a very approachable book for such a complicated subject.

Hughes attempts to do two things in this book, and generally succeeds; she calls it “an organic examination – an archaeology of both place and culture” (6). It is a chronological examination of the development of the city now called Istanbul – the invasions and innovations and growth through successive regime changes (although “not a catch-all of Istanbul’s past” (3)). However, woven through that is a social history of the people who made the city what it is. This includes such luminaries as Theodora and Constantine and Süleyman II, but also the everyday people who made the city function. There are chapters, for instance, on the presence of eunuchs in Constantinople, and the realities of the harem (insofar as they can be known), and the Varangian Guard. Hughes includes discussion of the various peoples who threatened, worked with, and generally impacted on the city (Goths, Vandals, Vikings, Turks). In doing so she naturally expands her focus beyond the city walls, but this is unavoidable when dealing with the likes of a city such as Byzantion. Indeed, it adds greatly to the context of the book: how to understand the numerous Muslim sieges and eventual conquest of the city without an understanding of the growth of Islam? How to understand the birth of Turkey as a country and the move of the capital to Ankara without the context of the First World War and the internal Ottoman politics of the time? And so on. Hughes does a magnificent job of weaving all of these pieces together into a coherent whole.

Nominally the book’s narrative stops at 1924; there’s a chapter after that about Istanbul’s future, but it’s a fairly sweeping overview of the following ninety years. However, something that I very much enjoyed and which added to the book’s approachability is that Hughes makes occasional reference to contemporary events from when she is writing (2016). A passing reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan acting in a similar fashion to Justinian, preparing “to take his money and to fly” (219), points up similarities in situations that may provoke and intrigue the reader. Describing the city as “well designed for rioting” and using the Gezi Park/Taksim Square riots to indicate this truth in 2013 (when Hughes was herself in the city), and then proceed to discuss the AD 532 Nika riots, suggests a continuation in the city’s physical existence that is extraordinary over that span in time.

One of the most captivating aspects of Hughes’ book is her wonderful use of archaeological evidence. There are frequent references to discoveries made in Istanbul and elsewhere around the world, and how the goods and structures uncovered are continuing to change historians’ and archaeologists’ understandings of different periods. For a historian to remind her reader that the story of a place is not completely known is refreshing. She contextualises these sites, too: to find “one of the few scraps of evidence for one of the most remarkable phenomena of the medieval world” (the Varangian Guard), one passes “young men push[ing] second-hand mattresses… on wooden carts and kids sort[ing] through piles of redundant television aerials” (321). This provides a visceral feel for the city as it is today – a living city, not abandoned; a city continuing to leave behind remains for future archaeologists to sift and puzzle through. Hughes also has a lovely sense of humour that occasionally pokes through: in discussing the archaeological finds at Tintagel (which indicate trade connections between that part of England and the Byzantine world), she describes the finding of the graffito reading “Artugno” as “[u]tterly unhelpful for the historian but irresistible for the tourist guides” (292).

Another aspect of Hughes’ attitude towards the city and her people over time is the sympathy she displays. In speaking of the development of iconoclasm, for instance, which she says historians have “[o]ften described… as an irrational, typically ‘Dark Ages’ response” to the consequences of the Theran volcanic eruption in AD 726, Hughes insists “we have to pause for a moment to think of the horror of Thera’s eruption” and proceeds to describe the physical realities of such an eruption (300). This is a lovely moment of historical empathy that enables the reader to glimpse life for an eighth-century Byzantine.

As a physical object, it’s well-designed. The cover is perhaps predictable but gorgeous nonetheless. There are three sets of colour plates, covering a range of people and events, and many black and white images throughout. Each section (there are eight, each representing some important change in Istanbul’s history) has a series of maps at the start, showing changes in the city as well as context such as the reach of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empire over time (there is one section where the map, which goes over two pages, is split by the colour picture insert; that was a bit irritating).

Hughes’ passion for Istanbul – for the history of the place and for the contemporary city – come through across the volume. She delights in all aspects of its history and she wants the reader to share that with her. As an introduction to the complexity of the city’s history, as a history of a place that has impacted on European and Asian history for 2500 years (and was inhabited for many thousands of years before that), and as an example of how history writing can be made approachable, this is a fabulous book.

Octavia E Butler: Modern Master of SF

Unknown.jpegGerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.

I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.

To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.

Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.

Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.

This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.

100 Nasty Women of History

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.

This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.

So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.

  1. There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
  2. The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
  3. It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.

But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.

The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.

  1. The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
  2. The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
  3. Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
  4. I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
  5. Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
  6. Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
  7. The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
  8. Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
  9. Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??

So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.

Women and Power

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. RRP $19.99 and available now.

This book consists of two lectures given by Mary Beard, Roman history professor and all-round awesome person, for the London Review of Books in 2014 and then 2017. I had seen the film of the second one, which was neat because I really (ironically) like Beard’s voice and intonation so that was an added bonus.

The first chapter is “The Public Voice of Women”. Beard presents a number of examples of how women were silenced in the Greek and Roman worlds, and then uses those instances to illuminate how women are silenced in the modern Western World, as well as how women’s voices (literally and metaphorically) are portrayed. She does not suggest that everything about the modern West is founded on classical traditions – and is at pains to point that out – but her examples make it very clear how many expectations and perceptions can be traced back that far. The examples she gives from her life (being described as whining, for instance, or told to shut up) as well as examples of other women will be all too familiar to many women – and this has happened to women in classical texts since way back. This is important because those texts are used and studied still, and have been/still are seen as… if not imprimaturs, then still worthy of examination. And so they continue to pervade modern Western society.

Beard notes in the Afterword that she avoided making big changes when it came time for publication – this lecture was given in 2014, with Obama still president of the USA and Theresa May not yet PM on the UK. The afterword was written in September 2017… thus before the current spate of #metoo and sexual harassment/abuse accusations. So perhaps even more than she could have expected, this (and the second chapter) are necessarily of their times. Beard’s points still stand, though, of course. Beard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; she’s pointing out the issues, making sure they’re not just accepted as ‘the way things are’ – and does suggest that we need to “think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations… go back to first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do” (40). Including women not thinking they need to deepen their voices to get more cred (guilty).

The second chapter on “Women in Power” was presented this year, which means it does deal with some of the depictions of May and Hilary Clinton… including some appalling versions of Clinton as Medusa (and Trump as Perseus??). Beard says insightful things about what power is, and how we think about it, and the language around it… and that when we talk about women ‘knocking on the door’ or ‘storming the citadel’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, well: we “underline female exteriority” (57). Which horrified me when I realised its truth. Because she’s right, and while women are largely outside of power we need to write, and speak, ourselves in. But also: “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?” (83). Yaaaasss.

This is a book I’ll be revisiting over and over, to remind myself of the reality I live in and to give myself encouragement to keep on. Things can change and it’s easier when we know where some of the problems lie.

Also, I need to read Herland and then re-read “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”?

Persepolis Rising

Unknown.jpegI received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $32.99 for the trade paperback.

I love James SA Corey and his (their) capacity to write awesome words that simultaneously lift up the heart and rip it to shreds. Previously, on this topic, see these posts. If you’re already on the Expanse train, you don’t need to read a review; you probably already have a copy or you’ve got it lined up for Christmas or something. If you haven’t read them yet… well, if you’re into space opera and deeply compelling characters and an epic, long-running saga where the books get published on time (burn), and you’re not intimidated by this being book 7, you should just go get yourself Leviathan Wakes already and START READING.

I can’t talk about this book without spoiling the rest of the series. You’re warned.

… and further, perhaps with this book more than any other of the series, I can’t even really talk about the BOOK without spoiling it, and I want to give massive kudos to the blurb writer who managed not to spoil the first page which, folks, is such a game-changer that I had to re-read it a few times to actually grasp what it was telling me. My darling has seen the TV show and it’s killing me that I can’t tell him about the first page. This never happens, because we basically don’t ever read the same stuff, so I can spill my angst about characters or authors without spoiling him for things. But this time? Oh, no. Now he’s invested in the TV version and he doesn’t even want me discussing those things what happens to Miller.

So… the non-spoiler version is that as always we follow our redoubtable Roci and her crew. Unexpected and probably bad things happen to our solar system. I continue to really like Holden while simultaneously appreciating that he continues to be complicated, both as a person and in the way people view him; Naomi and Bobbie vie for my very favourite, while Amos and Alex aren’t too far off. I continue to want to be Avasarala when I grow up. I love the way that politics are presented – messy and fraught and difficult and lived-in and having serious consequences. This is not an easy future that Corey imagines for us. It’s just so damned human. Also, w00t for the Roman history overtones. There’s battles and there’s conspiracy and there’s making the wrong decisions and just being wonderfully human. Argh, I love it and it hurts my heart and I want the next book sooner than I’ll get it…

Spoiler below in case you’ve read it or don’t care…

Continue reading →

The Glass Universe

This review first appeared in Crux, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of Victoria.

Unknown.jpegAmazing things happened at the Harvard Observatory around the turn of the twentieth century. Draper provided funding for photography of stellar spectra, while Bruce gave $50,000 towards a new 24-inch astrophotographic telescope. Pickering found the first spectroscopic binary, and Maury found the second; Fleming classified stellar spectra and discovered novae. Cannon worked on variable stars and explored the relationship between spectral type and magnitude; Leavitt also worked on variables and proposed the period-luminosity relation. Ames and Payne were Harvard’s first graduate students in astronomy.

Anna Draper, that is. Catherine Bruce. Edward Pickering and Antonia Maury. Williamina Fleming. Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. Adelaide Ames and Cecelia Payne. As Dava Sobel makes beautifully clear in The Glass Universe, women were fundamental to the astronomical work and discoveries at Harvard Observatory in its early years. This is a book in love with astronomy and its history that wants to ensure everyone who contributed—not just the now-big names like Hubble—is recognised.

Sobel points out three groups of women who contributed to astronomy. She opens her book by demonstrating how women contributed financially to astronomical work. Anna Draper provided money and telescopes so that stellar spectra could be investigated at Harvard, and endowed the Henry Draper Medal. This was done in honour of her late husband, but also reflected her own interests: she had observed with Henry, and helped with the photography; part of their honeymoon involved shopping for a glass disk for a 28-inch telescope, which the pair then ground and polished over years to transform into a mirror. At 73, Catherine Bruce’s vague interest in the stars was encouraged by Edward Pickering and by her death in 1900 her gifts totalled $175,000 (over $4 million today). Other women endowed telescopes, awards, and scholarships.

The second group, appropriately taking up most of the book, are the individual researchers at the Observatory. Most of them started as computers: examining glass plates, calculating visible magnitudes, cataloguing spectra. Some of the women worked on this for decades. Some undertook further work as their curiosity was sparked by the spectra they investigated, or the magnitudes they calculated, or they noticed interesting relationships between period and luminosity. These women published papers, and contributed to the papers of other astronomers, especially Pickering and Harlow; some of them were awarded annual medals, although not many; some were honorary membership to societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society, while Cannon was the treasurer of the American Astronomical Society. The work these women undertook was thanks in no small part to the unusual willingness of Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley (yes, that Shapley), directors at the Harvard Observatory between 1877 and 1952 (Solon Bailey had two years as interim director), to not only work with women but encourage their independent work and acknowledge them in publication. Their work is therefore also acknowledged and discussed, since it would be impossible to separate it from that of the computers in particular.

The third group of women consists of the wives and other family members of acknowledged astronomers. Solon Bailey’s wife, Ruth, contributed to his observatons for the Harvard station in Peru, while Pickering’s and Shapley’s wives played crucial roles at the Observatory in making the whole place work. The third director’s daughter, Anna, became a computer. They are the least well served by the book; it is presumably difficult to uncover contributions if they weren’t acknowledged at the time.

Dava Sobel has not only written a compelling history of Harvard Observatory, and not only conducted a remarkable survey of the contribution of women to astronomy, but has also written an intensely readable book. There’s some wonderful scientific discussions included, about Cepheid variables and their importance to figuring out the size of the universe and the like—but these do not dominate. If you are looking for a book about the history of astrophysics, this is not it and does not want to be it. No understanding of astrophysics is required to read it. Rather, this is a history of the people involved; it has a little about their relationships with one another, but it’s mostly about the work; it sounds like most of them put their work first anyway, so that’s appropriate. It demonstrates just how much computing power was required a century ago to understand the heavens—when that computing power could be jokingly measured in “girl hours”, and sometimes “kilo-girl hours”. The women who worked at the Harvard Observatory were a crucial part of the astronomical community.