Category Archives: History

on Joanna Russ

UnknownI’ve had this book on my shelf to read for a good few years now. I didn’t read it at first because I hadn’t read enough Russ, and then I put it off because I thought the book itself was going to be scary. The other day I finally decided it was Time, and I’m so glad that I did. Because this book is fantastic.

It’s not a book to read if you are completely unfamiliar with Russ, in my opinion. There are a few of her works that I haven’t read and when they were discussed, I was definitely a bit less engaged and a bit left out of the conversation (my fault, not that of the writers). So you really want to have read “When it Changed” and The Female Man, and The Two Of Us and We Who are About To… before coming to this. That said, that’s not exactly a hardship. Well, The Female Man might be; it’s not linear, it’s very 70s-second-wave-feminism in its attitude towards trans women (ie not very positive), and it’s playing rough with a lot of literary conventions. BUT it’s still worth reading and then you can read THIS set of essays and that’s great!

The first five essays deal with Russ in her context, and I found this deeply amazing and exciting to read. Russ as reviewer, Russ in community, Russ being all edgy and spiky and much as I wish I could have met her I think she would have intimidated me! I also loved this section for helping me get deeper into an appreciation of what it was like to be a feminist and a female SF fan in the 60s and 70s. Things are still not always great today but things have, largely, improved – at least in my experience. These essays are all beautifully written, too, and use such a fabulous array of sources from the period that it makes me want to tell everyone to keep their ephemera! Store it safely! Print your emails!

The second, bulkier section includes essays on Russ’ fiction. Some of these go deeply into literary criticism territory – like Tess Williams using Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival theory – and I haven’t read much lit crit in… quite a few years. So there were definitely a few bits where I did not get as much out of the essays as I might have when I was still studying and had practise. Nonetheless, the ideas that the essayists present are fascinating and intriguing and gave me new ways of thinking about the different stories. They also made me want to go and read Kittatinny, for instance, which I had thought I didn’t really need to. The essays use a range of devices and theory and ideas to get at the meat of Russ’ stories, to look at what they’re saying about society and gender and people and literature. It was actually really exciting to read.

The other thing this book gave me was a love of my feminist foremothers, Russ and the others that she was bouncing off/working with/ inspiring later. It made me really, really appreciative and fiercely grateful and amazed, too.

I’m so glad I got around to reading this book.

Muriel Matters

UnknownThe short version is that Muriel Matters was an Australian actress and acclaimed elocutionist who went to Britain and ended up participating in the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and went on to work with underprivileged children, among other things. She was also one of the first women in a flying machine, and was – as far as we can tell – the first person to engage in aerial leafletting: she tossed Votes for Women pamphlets over the side of the airship basket. She was amazing and this biography captures her wonderfully.

The longer version… is basically going on about some of the other, remarkable parts of Matters’ life. Like chaining herself to the Grille, part of the screen that stopped MPs from seeing the women who were in the tiny little room where they could watch parliament. Or the things that she endured while on her endless speaking tours, such as constant heckling and having eggs – and other things – thrown at her. The stays in prison. And her magnificent speeches about suffrage – which was not an end in itself, for Matters, but merely the beginning of women coming to full participation in social life and the fabulous consequences that would have for society. At the moment, it’s all too tragic to read some of Matters’ hopes and dreams for how women would be able to participate once they had the vote. Because yes, there were some positive changes made in SA, for example, once women were voting, around labour laws and the like. But we still see the ways in which women are hampered from full participation and the consequences of women’s voices not being taken seriously.

Wainwright, who also wrote Sheila, has done a remarkable amount of research here. Matters has never had a biography written before – and I’ve read quite a few books about English women’s fight for suffrage and she has never featured significantly in any of them. Matters died a widow, and with no children, and most of her family gone and overseas, so most of her own papers have been lost. So there’s a huge amount of reconstruction from newspapers, from early accounts of the suffrage movement, and other such sources to find out what can be found out. There are gaps, of course – in particular around Matters’ personal relationships – and Wainwright offers speculation but is clear that that’s what it is.

As to her politics and passions, those seem quite clear from her speeches and from where she devoted her energies. After becoming disillusioned with parts of the suffrage movement, Matters works with striking workers and then eventually becomes one of the first Montessori-trained teachers in Britain, working with children in slum areas. Knowledge of her later life is sketchy because she disappears from public view, which is such a shame because surely this woman didn’t sit at home fuming, after her actions earlier on? It makes me want to encourage everyone to print their emails and keep them in secure vaults so that historians can find them later.

This is an engaging, thoughtful, and generally lovely look at a fascinating and important woman who was part of a historical struggle that most people know far too little about.

Timekeepers

Unknown.jpegEven if you’re not that history books, but you are a keen observer of the world and how it works, this is a book I can highly recommend.

There were times (heh) when reading this that I wasn’t quite sure what book Simon Garfield was trying to write. Some of the things that he writes about didn’t immediately appear to connect to the idea of time. But when I considered the blurb, I decided that Garfield did indeed know exactly what he was doing. This is a book that considers the idea of time from a multitude of angles: “our attempts to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalise it, re-invent it, and make it meaningful.”

I really, really enjoyed this book. Garfield writes in lovely, sometimes whimsical ways – not that his ideas are less than scientific when required, but that he has a lovely turn of phrase to make some difficult concepts approachable. And I really did enjoy the different ways that he approached time. I already knew about trains and train timetables essentially necessitating the development of time zones, but I didn’t have a problem with it being reiterated; I adore that he included discussion of the French Republican calendar and its attempt to decimalise, rationalise, time. Including questions of the metronome and how to play Beethoven’s Ninth and why a CD fits as much as it used to is just marvellous, and the question of just how many times someone can be shown, in film, hanging from a clock is one I had never considered. Also, the idea of a film that goes for 24 hours and is comprised of snippets from other films that together make 24 hours, each shown at the appropriate time of the day? Madness and genius have rarely been so close together. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the ideas that Garfield explores: how to make a watch, the four-minute mile, the modern drive for efficiency… yeh. This is a varied, delightfully jumbled, exploration of a topic that consumes a lot of modern Westerners.

Garfield is not suggesting he’s written the definitive book on time; far from it. There’s a wonderful Further Reading section that I’m afraid to look at because this is a rabbit hole I could very easily fall into. But it is a good introduction to pointing out that time is a lot more subjective, and invented, and dependent than we sometimes think.

Reading this is a good way to spend some time.

 

 

Robin Hood (2010)

MV5BMTM5NzcwMzEwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg5MTgwMw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgGetting through Great Scott!

Robin Hood

Ridley (2010)

A: And so we come to the only film on our list that neither of us has seen. This promises to be interesting. I have an abiding fascination with Robin Hood: both visually (I will quote the animated version at you; I don’t care if you disapprove of my adolescent love of the Costner version) and academically (Stephen Knight’s history is awesome). So… I’m a bit scared.

J: In ye olde times …

A: Yikes look at that font.

So, 12th century eh. Blanchett already being forceful, with a bow? I’m pleased. A flaming arrow!

J: More ye olde times …  

A: Robin Longstride, eh? That’s different. But it’s still Richard not-so-lion-heart’s time. AND we’re actually on crusade with Rusty! (wait, not crusade – this is France, surely, with Richard more interested in running French bits than his English territory)

J: So basically it’s Gladiator … gosh I hope it’s not as slow. I wonder if they will show the archer’s paradox… slow motions arrows n all. Continue reading →

Sisters of Tomorrow

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Wesleyan University Press, at no cost. It’s available now.

Unknown.jpegIt’s no secret that I like science fiction and history and am feminist, so books like this are like a perfect conjunction for me. I’ve previously read Helen Merrick’s Secret Feminist Cabal, and Justine Larbalestier’s Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction AND Daughter of Earth, which is a compilation of early female SF writers. So I’ve got a bit of background knowledge – not that you need it at all for this anthology, because Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B Sharp set the scene magnificently in their intro to the book and to the chapters.

Here’s the thing that makes this book really special: while the biggest section is on the authors, because they include some stories – including a fairly long novelette – the editors don’t stop there. They also have sections on the female poets, and artists, and journalists, and editors of the 30s and 40s. This blew my mind. I’d vaguely heard of Margaret Brundage, I think? But I certainly didn’t realise that there were women active and influential in all of those spheres. Yaszek and Sharp also cross into the amateur magazines, where women were also hugely important in the development of “understandings of science, society, and SF in different arenas of SF production” (xxiii). If you’re interested in early science fiction at all, if you’re interested in women in literature, if you’re interested in the history of SF – this is an excellent anthology.

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In the Chinks of the World Machine

Look, any book whose title is taken from a Tiptree story – and “The Women Men Don’t See” no less – is likely to be very appealing to me. And ta dah! It was.

Unknown.jpegThis delightful feminist, academic, personal, humorous, thoughtful, and passionate examination of women in science fiction and women writing science fiction came out in 1988. So yes, it’s dated – of course it has. There have been lots more stories written in the last (oh heck) nearly thirty years that have a variety of female characters, and of course more female authors challenging and playing with science fiction ideas. But I think that the categories that Lefanu considers – Amazons, utopias and dystopias, women in love, and so on – these categories often still apply to the ways that women appear, or are thought that they should appear, as characters. So I certainly found these chapters resonant and not only from a historical perspective.

The second half of the book was the bit that I really loved, though. James Tiptree Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ: what a magnificent set of women, and a magnificent set of stories between them. Lefanu examines a set of the novels and short stories of each of the women (in Russ’ case, almost all her science fiction) and dissects the ways in which they present women. She’s not always flattering – she has some issues with Le Guin’s early female characters, which I don’t entirely agree with – but she is always interesting and insightful.

One of the things I really appreciated and enjoyed about this book is that while Lefanu is absolutely writing an academic piece and interrogating issues of feminism and how science fiction fails or encourages women, there are also personal moments that didn’t feel at all out of place. I really, really like this idea that the writer actually exists and has an opinion – that the book isn’t pretending to be a disembodied, clinical examination but acknowledges the very real body behind the … well, typewriter probably.

If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, in women in science fiction (in all senses), or have a somewhat historical literary bent, this is a really great book. It’s very approachable and even if you haven’t read the stories Lefanu examines (I’ve only read one of the Charnas books), she explains them enough that her analysis makes sense… and I still want to read the books.

Long Hidden

Unknown.jpegA book that celebrates the marginalised throughout history. The women. The black. The brown. The queer. The trans. The freaks.

Stories that give the marginalised agency, even when they’re oppressed; purpose, even when they’re condemned; existence, even when they’re ignored.

I loved this anthology. I at least liked, if not loved, every single story.

Every story is set in a historical time and place: parts of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe. They deal with real instances of marginalisation and oppression: sometimes minorities within hostile communities, sometimes systemic social oppression. In each story the characters are those whose stories have tended not to be told in Official History – at least not until the last few decades, and still slowly at that. In some cases the stories are triumphant; in some cases the stories tell of loss and woe. But almost always there’s an element of optimism, or hope. That through oppression, defiant humanity shines through. That despite others trying to remove that humanity, the marginalised know that they are human, and deserving of dignity. Even if in this instance, they’re not accorded it. I found it an unexpectedly uplifting anthology.

It reminded me of Cranky Ladies of History, for its agenda of shining light into often unlit areas of history. But the difference is that this is consciously speculative fiction about the margins. Most often that’s expressed as magical ability of various kinds, rooted in real religious systems or within individual humans; or there’s the occasional science fictional element. Sometimes it’s zombies or shape-changing, or magical/otherworldly creatures. Sometimes the speculative element is central to the story, and sometimes it’s just there, part of the world. It’s always done well.

Everyone should read this anthology.

The Silk Roads

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out in September; RRP $29.99.

This is one of the finest history books I have read in recent times. It’s also probably the first book I’ve read that calls itself ‘a history of the world’ that does not mention the Norman invasion of England. And that’s because in 1066, from the perspective Frankopan presents here, a wee island on the west coast of Europe was of absolutely no relevance to the movers and shakers of the world. (Henry VIII is barely mentioned either!) The real business of global activity was in what Frankopan calls the real heart of the world – the lands of the Silk Roads, from the Himalayas to the Mediterranean, which for the two thousand or so years covered here drove human history.

Now, that’s a big claim, but what’s a history book without a big claim behind it? and of course important things were happening in places like Britain in the 11th century – but things of regional importance, not things with world-changing impact. Frankopan’s thesis is that the areas connected by what came to be called the Silk Road had an impact on actions, thought, and policy across most of Europe and Asia and, eventually, the Americas and Africa as well. Sometimes this area is actively driving history (the beginnings of Christianity and Islam, anyone? – and Judaism too although it doesn’t start in the period covered) and sometimes it’s – not quite passive – but almost: that this area happens to be incredibly oil-rich isn’t anyone’s fault or decision, but the reactions to it are.

Each chapter of the book is centred around the theme of roads: the road of faiths, to a Christian East, of gold and silver and black gold and genocide. It’s blunt about the horrors perpetrated – so much slavery – and waxes lyrical about the beauties produced by various cultures. Islam and Christianity and Judaism are shown cooperating, although rarely all three together, as well as antagonistic – for religious and political reasons (throw Zoroastrianism in there too, and indeed Buddhism).  There are countless invasions – sometimes repelled, sometimes welcomed, sometimes hugely resented; there are alliances and back-stabbings and intermarriages. Most of all, though, there is trade. Trade along the Silk Road – from China and indeed further east, all the way to that insignificant island on the west coast of Europe, and of course within the regions along it too. The impact of Chinese pottery on the Dutch. The impact of silk and gold and – of course – oil, as well as innumerable other goods, back and forth, is mapped out by Frankopan. Not quite half the book is basically from 1900 onwards (the chapter is called ‘The Road to War’), which I know makes sense in terms of the availability of sources; the medievalist in me was a bit sad, I’ll admit.

I am guilty of having a Euro-centric view of history. Partly this is my education and upbringing which have in turn led me to be most interested in European history, especially British and the ‘classical’ worlds. I have a bitser knowledge of events involving Persia across the ages and the regions of Central Asia – usually as they intersect with those areas I have studied (Alexander the Great, the Huns, the Mongols). More recently I am absolutely guilty of falling into the complacent trap of thinking of Central Asia, in particular, as being a war-torn area that is to be pitied (HELLO privilege). To see this area’s history presented chronologically and with a focus squarely on it, the actions taken by people in the area as well as those acting on it; and to see the actions involving Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Egypt, and Britain and the US in particular, over the last five decades or so – this was an absolute revelation. For those who are more interested in modern politics perhaps this won’t be quite so eye-opening, but I imagine that for most it will still be a revelation to have all of the pieces fitted together and the connections between them pointed out clearly and cogently.

Unknown.jpegReading about the actions of the British Empire made me embarrassed to be Anglo, at times. The sheer arrogance on display was truly remarkable.

The aesthetics: if I could have a framed copy of the front cover, I probably would. It’s gorgeous. Inside there are two sets of eight pages of colour pictures – which isn’t as many as I might have expected from such an epic book, but they were a reasonable overview of the content. I have a copy of the trade paperback; it’s a hefty tome: I didn’t quite manage to not put creases in the spine, which is an indication of how hard it was to read without opening it fully! (Yes I am that person; crease my book’s spine and I will crease you.) It’s 520 pages long (with another 100 pages of footnotes) – so it’s not a fast read, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in world history, or in modern history. It should be read by any politician or policy-maker who thinks they can make decisions about any part of the world other than their own without consequences. It should also be read by anyone with a tendency to Eurocentrism. It’s a study in well-written history, too.

The Deadly Sisterhood

Not a lady-assassins novel, but a history book about the role of eight significant women in Unknown.jpegthe Italian peninsula during the Renaissance.

I scored this at a school market for about $2, which was very cool.

Firstly, two problems:

  1. There were a number of egregious editing issues, which really annoyed me. A major publisher should not be putting out books with mistakes that *I* can pick up as I read it – it’s not like I read with the attention of a copy editor.
  2. More significantly, the book falls into the trap that many such history books do. They’re trying to write a book about the women, who have largely been ignored by contemporary and modern historians… but there’s so much else! being done by the lads! and honest, it’s needed for context! … that there are large slabs of text that really don’t seem to be connected to the women who are in theory at the heart of the book. Even if there are occasional mentions of “oh, and he was Duchess Blah’s son”. It was frustrating to have the women seem to be ignored in their own book.

Anyway. Frieda focusses on eight women, some of whom I’d heard of – Lucrezia Borgia, of course – and others I hadn’t heard of – of course. It covers the height of the Italian Renaissance, from 1471 to 1527. She discusses their births and marriages and deaths, their children and (often multiple) husbands, as well as the roles they played in politics – both consciously and as marital pawns – and in the artistic and cultural milieu. Actually that last was the bit that, surprisingly, got least attention; I would have thought that the women would have played greater roles as patrons. Perhaps Frieda was more interested in discussing the political aspect, which is definitely at the forefront of her interests here.

Despite the problems mentioned above – and that sometimes the language was a bit too snarky; I don’t need to be reminded that one of the Isabellas apparently got quite fat, unless that contributed to how people treated her – I did enjoy reading this, and I am very pleased to know more about these women of important families who themselves managed to do important and significant things.

 

Queen of the Desert: the film

As I mentioned in my post about the book Queen of the Desert, a biography of Gertrude Bell, I finally got around to reading the book after seeing the biopic directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman. I didn’t mind the film; my mother, having read the book, didn’t love it but didn’t hate it; having read the book I am increasingly annoyed by the film.

The good things: Continue reading →