Elektra, by Jennifer Saint

I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Maybe it’s me, but when I see a book described as a retelling – particularly of something from Greek mythology – I expect to get new insights, a twist on the narrative, or something else unexpected. Sadly, I did not get any of those from this book.

I know a fair bit about Greek mythology – I’m not an expert, but I’ve done my share of reading. I know the story of the House of Atreus; it’s why I was so keen to read a new version of Elektra’s story. I can’t really imagine being someone who doesn’t know about the stories wanting to pick up this book; why would you? But if you are like me, and you do know about Elektra and her parents, then I feel that this book doesn’t really offer anything. And I’m a bit sad about that.

One unexpected thing that the book does have is three narrators. For all that it’s named for Elektra, there’s nearly as much space given to her mother, Clytemnestra, and the Trojan princess/eternally ignored prophet, Cassandra. Now, maybe having Clytemnestra there is an interesting foil for Elektra’s perspective – she is, after all, a child when Agamemnon heads off to war, and it’s Clytemnestra’s desire for vengeance that leads to the later events around Orestes. And Clytemnestra also allows the author to start the story much earlier, with the ‘wooing of Helen’ and all. And I understand why you’d have Cassandra too – the Trojan perspective – but it felt jarring in a book named for the Mycenaean daughter.

My final whinge is some of the anachronisms, which I found a bit uncomfortable. Firstly, the use of ‘Greek’ as a collective term for all the little city states who banned together to go reclaim/recapture Helen. Maybe ‘Hellene’ is too weird for a general reader? Is it too weird to have an explanatory note at the start of the book? I don’t know. But it made me a bit grumpy. And there were other little things too, mostly more concerned with atmosphere: it felt like Saint couldn’t decide whether she wanted this world to feel really familiar, just with added deities and exotic-ness; or whether she wanted to play up the temporal distance from the reader. I think she mostly leaned to the former, and so in an odd way Clytemnestra and Elektra and everyone felt too familiar.

So… a lot of things to complain about. Why did I finish it? It really is well written; it’s easy to read, the pacing is good, the language is often lovely. (I partly kept reading in the hopes of something different, too, which was a bad reason to continue but is nonetheless true.)

Could you read this if you didn’t know the source material? I think so. I think there’s enough explanation that you would be able to follow the intricacies of the different problems with no trouble. And perhaps that’s indeed part of the problem for me – everything was too laid out, I wasn’t required to do any thinking at all.

Recipe, by Lynn Z Bloom

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in May.

This is an eclectic book. It’s not an in-depth examination into the social, cultural or culinary history of the recipe – and it doesn’t want to be that. This is more whimsical, more meandering, more dip-a-toe-into-interesting-spaces than that.

It’s also super American; I feel I should flag that for all the other non-US readers. There’s a whole chapter on Thanksgiving – and I get why you would do that, but also there’s no acknowledgement that it’s restricted as “a recipe” to one country and its diaspora. And in the first chapter, about the basics of what a recipe is, the author uses the idea of chicken stock to elaborate on the idea of variation. Which makes sense! But then says this: “Every version of this basic recipe involves the same ingredients in the same proportions – the amount of chicken in the recipe is always five pounds” (12). Um. Not in my recipes? Even given that maybe she just couldn’t be bothered mentioning that other countries might use different measurements, it’s still a weirdly sweeping generalisation. (This one might be picked up in editing, but the author also refers to “the Great British Baking Show” which struck me a really WEIRD mistake.)

ANYWAY. Despite those things, I did enjoy reading this a lot. I love Bloom’s idea that “as a literary genre and social construct, multi-faceted and complex, a recipe in its human context offers lessons in life and living” (3) – that’s such a fantastic way of putting it. Throughout the book, she shows those different aspects of the idea of ‘a recipe’. And also made me feel better about the fact that I often don’t follow a recipe to the absolute letter (except in baking, which is chemistry) – she says this is indeed what people everywhere always do. I love the idea of recipe as story, and as memory. I’m less wild about it as a symbol of power or politics, but absolutely accept that it can be.

All up, a really great read. Also it’s made me dead keen to find other books in the Object Lesson series: a book on the eye chart? on exits? THE TRENCH COAT??

Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London)

I received this at no cost from the publisher, Hachette. It’s out now; RRP $32.99.

Firstly, this is number 9 in the Rivers of London series, so do not pick it up if you haven’t read the rest. You’d be able to follow the basic plot – provided you’re ok with the idea of London police needing to deal with weird bollocks (that is, magic); but the relationships will make no sense to you and the references to past problems won’t have any impact. Also, it’s an enormously fun series (with, sadly, some thick-headed and annoying misogyny in the early books from the main character) so if you ARE fine with modern London policing engaging in magic and dealing with criminal practitioners, just start from the start.

And if you’re already on the Rivers of London train, you really don’t need me to write this review because you’re already going to be reading it whenever it comes in at the library / your preorder arrives / you nick it from your mum. So if the purpose of the review was to convince people to read this particular book… there’s really no point.

Not my main reason!

I have enormously enjoyed the development of Peter Grant over these books – I was very dubious about him as the POV when I first started, because he was just a bit … painful. Young? Smug? At any rate, not a character I could particularly connect with. But the world Aaronovitch presented – a very modern one, but where magic fries electronic circuits; his boss Nightingale, whom I always found intriguing; and the magical cases themselves – all convinced me to keep going. And Peter has indeed grown up, due to circumstances and Beverley, and has become much less annoying and more like a decent bloke and a generally good copper. So that’s been worthwhile. The cases keep being interesting – and what I like there is that Aaronovitch doesn’t feel like he has to keep uping the ante; it’s not like one book we’re blowing up a building then the city then the world. Because magic can help you do a vast assortment of nefarious things so you can just have varied crime, rather than ratcheting up.

Here, Aaronovitch takes the opportunity to make some Lord of the Rings jokes, with a bunch of people connected through university and each in possession of odd rings being targeted by a peculiar and rather terrifying person. There’s the usual work with Guleed, more Seawoll than usual, and trainee Danni – plus, of course, Nightingale. (I would love a bunch of Nightingale prequels…) Not so much Mary or Foxglove, but more foxes; plus, Beverley is very nearly at term, so there’s paternity leave to be considering, too. It’s a standard Rivers of London, which is in no way a slight! It’s exactly what I was hoping for: a bit ridiculous, some very clever connections, an enormous fondness for London as a city, lots of banter and precisely paced – brisk, but not whirlwind. I’ll happily keep reading these for as long as this standard endures.

The Normans: Power, Conquest & Culture in 11th Century Europe

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 22 March, 2022.

I love the Normans. I have been fascinated by them as a group for a pretty long time now. The conquest of England! Randomly being in Sicily! The First Crusades! Occasionally popping up elsewhere!

I also love a good interrogation of sources. And asking new questions, or using new information to contribute to questions already asked.

Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Given the above, I can’t say how easy this would be to read for someone with zero knowledge of the Normans. Even I found it hard to follow the Roberts and Rogers and various families (honestly I kind of stopped caring about whether I was completely following who was related to who; it didn’t seem to matter in some instances, and Green often reminded me when it did). It should also be noted that there is more historiography than I think is usual for a purely narrative sort of history, so if learning what specific historians (medieval and modern) have said about specific issues is not your cup of tea, you may well find this book a bit annoying. For the rest of us… this is a really great, and thorough, examination of the Normans in the 11th century.

I really liked how Green examined what was going on in Normandy, England, Sicily/Italy and Antioch/the First Crusade as a way of trying to see if there really is something to the very IDEA of ‘being a Norman’ – which honestly is a brave thing when you’re entire book is about ‘the Normans’ – but that’s exactly the point of it. Some people at least claimed the Normans as Very Special People with a Very Special Place in the World (via God or character or whatever else). Is that actually true? Is it even possible to speak of “Normans”? Gosh I love these sorts of questions. I also quite like that Green doesn’t entirely come to a complete answer. She has some suggestions – that maybe Normans themselves in the 11th century weren’t alway seeing themselves as ‘Normans’ – and also proposes a whole bunch more avenues for investigation. Which is the other awesome thing that Green does – she’s not just using the old Williams of history (Jumieges, Malmesbury, etc), but adding in archaeology and DNA and various other sources to make a way more interesting and complete picture.

Overall, not My First Introduction to Medieval History, but a really great work on a group of people who had a fairly hefty impact on medieval Europe (and beyond).

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

I read this courtesy of the publisher, Bloomsbury. It’s out now; $39.99 trade paperback.

… and I thought I was an iconoclast. What a remarkable, thought-provoking and intriguing biography.

Things I already knew about Magellan: he did not circumnavigate the world. I learned that in a book about how Basques influenced the world, because the captain of the only one of Magellan’s boats that did, actually, go around the globe was captained by a Basque.

Things I did not know: most of what Fernandez-Armesto discusses in this book. I did not know that Magellan (to use his Anglicised name) was Portuguese who ditched that kingdom and went to Spain – a traitorous act at the time. I did not know that he was a little too keen on chivalric romances and maybe wanting to emulate them. I definitely did not know what a truly dreadful leader and person in general he was.

OK, that last bit is something of an exaggeration. Indeed one of the problems that Fernandez-Armesto discusses here is the difficulty of ever truly understanding someone like Magellan: partly because of the temporal distance, as well as the mental distance, between me and a Portuguese court-educated man of the 1500s; but also because much of the evidence is deeply conflicted. There’s something close to hagiography by someone who was on the voyage and managed not to die… but there’s also plenty of accounts from men who mutinied. So how do you get to ‘the truth’, and what even is that.

Anyway. As a biography this is awesome. The author brings the context wonderfully to life, exploring what the world was like for someone like Magellan in the 16th century – what Europe knew of the world, and what the world knew of Europe; what kings and adventurers wanted, how empire was going, knowledge of the Atlantic and Pacific, and so on.

Something I had never really appreciated before reading this: just how Very Big the Pacific is. Especially for those accustomed to the Atlantic.

For the historians, Fernandez-Armesto skilfully uses primary sources to make his points, and to show people in their own words – and they never get overwhelming, or in the way of the story. It’s a really great example of how such sources can and should be used.

And finally, the last chapter is called “Aftermath and Apotheosis”, and this is where my iconoclast remark comes in. I got the sense that Fernandez-Armesto doesn’t necessarily like Magellan – which is fine, if intriguing; he certainly proves that Magellan deserves to be studied, if only to learn what he can show about his world. And beyond that, Fernandez-Armesto completely goes to town on previous biographers who do love Magellan, and all those companies who use Magellan’s name as if it’s some sort of shorthand for scientific endeavour or great achievements or frankly anything good. Because what the author shows is that Magellan deserves none of that. He had no scientific interest; he was out for the main chance. He didn’t achieve anything much that was great: yes, he sailed through the straits that bear his name, but he didn’t know they were there and he wasn’t the pilot or navigator anyway PLUS the cost in human suffering was enormous.

This is a great book. If you’re keen on the history of exploration, or early modern biographies, or learning the story behind a fairly familiar name, this is an excellent choice.

Taste: A book of small bites

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in August 2022.

Food has often been used by poets as a way of expressing themselves. Chefs and others have often been moved to exuberant, passionate language to try and describe food. So a book like this makes perfect sense. Dubrow explores our relationship with our five tastes through experiences – some near-universal, some not – and exquisite language, to try and get at what we mean, what we experience, when we saw sweet or sour or salt or bitter or, most recent to the Western vocab, umami.

There’s the sense-memory of strawberry jam, and being a feverish six year old – like Proust’s madeleines; heathen that I am in never having even attempted Proust, I have heard of this story and how the taste catapults the narrator through memory. There’s Persephone and the sour pomegranate seeds, the experience of sweat dripping down one’s face, the ceremony of making a cup of tea. How food have been represented in art – still-lifes, and others – and what this says about the particular foods. Cheese and coffee and chocolate.

It’s a delightful collection of moments, of mediations. It reminds that food isn’t just fuel, that taste is an experience even if we’re just gulping something down as fuel. We don’t always have to sit and reflect on the emotion brought about by a particular taste, but it can occasionally be rewarding.

Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.

This is a really fascinating book that takes food and issues of ‘nativism’ and looks at how they work together. It seems kind of obvious once you start thinking about it that food can be a political tool – even a weapon… one need only think of some of the racist insults that people use, which are either specifically or tangentially food related. Or the way politicians are publicised eating particular foods. Or the boycotting of foods…

One of the first things that I appreciated about this book is that Parasecoli is quite open about things needing much more extensive research to fully understand what’s going on, and that “patterns [he identifies] are tentative, unstable, and shifting” (xi). That the book “raises questions rather than offering solutions… proposes one point of view, food and its ideological uses, to read events and and tensions that are obviously much larger” (xii). This sort of intellectual honesty is a delight, and also brings me hope that maybe the ways food is used and discussed in connection to politics may indeed become a greater field of investigation.

Parasecoli’s idea of ‘gastronativism’ is a broad one, and encompasses political positions that are, at least to my mind, both arch-conservative leaning towards fascist, and at the other end much more progressive. The first limits what it means to be in a community (white supremacy, anti immigrant) – what he calls exclusionary gastronativism. On the other hand is what he calls nonexclusionary gastronativism (and I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to give a speech on this topic): it looks at “extending rights, resources, and wellbeing to the disenfranchised and the oppressed” (22). Cross-national issues of worker rights, and such issues. I love that such seemingly different issues can be examined together, using similar thought-tools.

It must be acknowledged that this book challenged me to think about the way that I approach food. In one section, Parasecoli discusses the idea of authenticity – “a Thai restaurant feels more authentically Thai if the cook and staff are recognisably Thai” – and that being able to “distinguish authenticity becomes part of consumers’ cultural capital” (89). And then you get arguments about what IS authentic, and things can get very messy. I don’t think the author is saying that a desire for authenticity is automatically bad; but it did make me start thinking about what constitutes ‘the canon’ when it comes to food, and that sent me down a bit of a spiral, being something of an iconoclast in those issues.

There is a LOT in this book; Parasecoli touches on a broad range of issues and explores exclusionary and nonexclusionary examples from various parts of the world. As he says in the intro, he doesn’t always go into huge detail about all of them – that’s not really the point of the book. Instead he’s trying to show what the very concept of gastronativism can be, how it might be interrogated, what sort of actions people use and thoughts it stimulates. And I think he is very persuasive in showing that food isn’t always just something that someone like me eats for fuel. It’s always much more than that.

Nettle and Bone

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

If you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher, I can say “this is exquisitely T. Kingfisher” and know that you’ll run for a copy of this book. (Fair warning: book does include reference to family violence, and an abusive partner.)

If you’re not already… maybe you’re a fan of Angela Slatter? Kingfisher’s books remind me of her work too.

What does that mean?

They’re both doing fascinating things with fairy tales… except not really fairy tales, because they’re not always familiar stories, but it’s the vibe of fairy tales – fairy tale logic – fairy tale expectations and narrative structures. And I don’t mean Disney versions, I mean grim/m and sometimes gritty and meaty and fully embedded in the world, where not everything is lovely and wonderful but sometimes they are, and sometimes by force of personality you can make a change in the world and sometimes you just have to roll with the world’s punches.

I loved this book a lot.

There’s a princess who doesn’t especially want to be and who is really sure that she’s good at it, and a bone dog, and two godmothers, and a dust-wife. Also a quest and a heavy dose of gritted-teeth determination and a good level of snark, generally dished out by old ladies, which is of course the best sort. It goes at a good pace – not so fast as to leave you spinning, but you’re also not just sitting around always admiring flowers. I read this quickly and it felt just right.

This book keeps Kingfisher as one of those novelists whose work I just read pretty much automatically. I mean, it includes such gems as: “My dog trusts me… My dog is witless and also dead” and also this, addressed to a chicken: “I know you aren’t broody, demon, but you’re going to make an exception or so help me…”.

Definitely should go on your to-read shelf.

Women’s History Month: Jean McLean (part 3)

History Council of Victoria

Yes, I know; three posts from Jean McLean does seem to fall into the same trap I mentioned in my first post. But the reality is that she has given a great deal of thought to the issues around the Vietnam War protests, and that she was a vital part of the whole thing – particularly in organising the May 1970 moratorium. And so, I give her the final word, about organising that moratorium – and about how it reflected the enormous change in Australian attitudes. In the mid 1960s, most adults supported the idea of conscription, and the Vietnam War also seemed necessary to many. But the 8 May 1970 moratorium saw somewhere between 60 and 100,000 people on the streets of Melbourne, and more in other capital cities; and then in 1972, Whitlam was elected, and most agree that the conscription issue was a significant factor in that. So here’s Jean’s perspective on how you keep going over nearly a decade (longer than most other excerpts):

Jean McLean interview

Transcript

Alex: You said before that, obviously, the campaign had a beginning, a middle and an end. But you didn’t know that when you started – – –

Jean: Oh, no.

Alex:  – – – and I’ve read a lot about just how distressing the 1966 election was in terms of hoping against hope that it wouldn’t happen, and then it did. 

Jean: Yeah, well, we thought that would all happen just like that. 

Alex: Yeah. How did you keep enthusiastic? How did you – how did you keep an organisation like that – you, in general – how did you keep going? 

Jean: Well, part of it was, there was Ian Turner, but also a guy called Max Teichmann, he’d been a philosopher, and then he became an international affairs lecturer. He went through phases of being left and being right, but luckily I had him in the left bit. But he was very good, because he understood the history of all this anti-conscription stuff better than I did. I mean, I didn’t read a book then think, I’ll do it. 

And at that election, and at the ’69, when people were, you know, young people who’d been handing out how to vote cards, and they were crying, “Oh, we’ve lost.” Max said, “No. We got more votes this time. We’ll get more votes next time.” And he did that again with the ’69, you know? He said, “It takes time. It takes time for people to understand. We’re doing better.” So – – – 

Alex: So you had a long-term vision – – – 

Jean: Yeah. Able to see in the long term. And also because we got more and more support. We didn’t get less. We got more. 

Alex: Yeah. So you could see that you were having an effect? 

Jean: Yeah, yeah. And I must say that, obviously, the reason that they don’t allow journalists into the Middle East wars is because every night that it was on the television, every single night, there was what was happening in Vietnam. And it was all terrible. And – you know? And they’d try and tell you something, “Oh, we won, we killed five thousand Viet Cong.” And people said, “That’s disgusting.” 

So, now, they don’t let people know what’s happening. You know, and it was just, sort of – – –

Alex: The media really played into showing people just how terrible things were, and then you’re right there, your organisation’s right there, and gives some people a real way of reacting against it. 

Jean: Exactly.

Alex: I guess, if anybody knows anything about the anti-conscription movement, they tend to know about the moratorium marches. Do you think they were effective?

Jean: Oh, incredibly so. Because – and the Victorian one was the most successful, in part because of Jim Cairns. Who was the deputy prime minister – he’s been written out of history. 

Alex: Yeah.

Jean: He’s been written out of history, you know? You never hear anyone talk about Jim Cairns. And yet, it was Jim who, in ’62, he spoke out against the war. The secret war in Laos. And, anyway, he was the chair of the moratorium. And so, you know, we had to do the work, because he was in Parliament. You know, but he’d come to address meetings. But he was a very important figurehead, because he spoke very, very well against war. 

So anyway, the moratorium movement in Melbourne – we started with a meeting of all the different groups. Save Our Sons, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription, all the different groups. We met in Richmond Town Hall. And we worked out programs, including – like, we used to go and – I was – Jim was the chair, I was deputy chair, Bernie Taft was another deputy chair. And Harry Van Moorst was – for one of them was the deputy chair. 

 Anyway, we’d have meetings, and – we’d go and address people at – through working with the trade union movement – at all the factory doors. Sometimes we were allowed in the dining room, depending on the make-up of the factories. Others, we had to speak at the gates. But we did that. We went, you know, just hundreds of meetings. We went and distributed leaflets. We raised funds. 

So that by the time May the 8th turned up, there were just hundreds and hundreds of people. The police had been told – and I had a police spy, a brother of a friend who was in the police, and he said – like, he just told us that they’d been given instructions in the morning, that they’d have all the horses at the top of town, and they’d have all these police – so they’d break up the demonstration, they wouldn’t allow it to happen. 

 And so we had a meeting at the Assembly Hall the morning of the demo, where we were going to get everybody to be marshals. They’d have a band. So everybody had to try and make sure there was no – nobody’d get out and start hitting. You know, bash them. 

Anyway, so then we came out of that meeting, and my friend said, “All the rules have been changed. We’ve now been told to make sure that the demonstration isn’t – you know, facilitate. Facilitate the demonstration.” Make sure that – no cars in the way when we march, you know, so the route from the gardens down, to march. 

Because what had happened was, everywhere you looked that morning, when we were going to the meeting, everywhere you looked, there were people with rolled up banners, there were people with T-shirts, there were – you could see that everyone was going to the demo. This is going to be huge. Couldn’t believe it. Schools! High schools! And they let the kids go, the – you know, the senior kids. All that sort of thing. And, yeah, it was just amazing. And that’s why it was so successful. Was not tweets, but physical meeting and talking. And I still believe that that’s the only real way to do things.  

If you know of a Melbourne woman involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Women’s History Month: Sue McCulloch (again)

History Council of Victoria

Sue McCulloch was very involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, including working for the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament (CICD) and being the secretary of the Draft Resisters Union. Here she reflects on the position of women overall in the protest movement.

Sue McCulloch interview

Transcript

Alex: And just finally, so the focus of what I’ve been looking at is really the motivation and the actions of women in particular; from your memory, did you get a sense that there were a lot of women? Like, would you have said it would have been about half or less, in terms of people doing things?

Sue: Absolutely. Yes, I do, I think there were at least half who were women. And I – we were not acknowledged. And I think a number of the men, now, these days, would say that, too. We were regarded as, you know, the sort of – the help maids, you know, the people who did the typical kind of role of women. And it was, at the time, when women were also, you know, it did really go hand in hand with the women’s movement. 

And I think women within the anti-war movement were facing the same struggles of recognition and autonomy as women in general. So, you know, the fact that we were in an anti-war movement didn’t necessarily – in fact, it didn’t give us any greater presence or voice. 

In terms of our power in that movement, I think we had less power. You know, there were very strong – the main people in the anti-war movement like Jim Cairns, was sort of the figurehead, the people on the executives of various things were largely all men, except for Jean McLean. Oh, maybe Joan Coxsedge. And one or two others. 

But I don’t think the number of women in those powerful positions reflected by any means the actual number of women who were involved in the entire movement. So it was very frustrating at the time. And I think there were people who actually left the anti-war movement, who found themselves frustrated as women in that movement. They joined the women’s liberation movement more – you know, to be their main focus of activity. Because they just felt that they were not, you know, it was endlessly frustrating for them to be in this movement where they weren’t being given an equal say. 

One of my jobs was as a media liaison person, and it’s actually how I met my daughter’s father, because he was a journalist on The Age. And I used to blindfold him and take him to meet draft resisters and others. But in the newspapers, there were actually a lot of women – like, we were the main people who were usually photographed doing things. There are photographs of Jeanie and me, and a model who – we walked across Collins Street on the 11th day at the 11th hour, you know, when the whole city is kind of stopped for – and we walked out to protest about Vietnam. There were photos of us often in the newspapers, being dragged around. You know, photos of Jeanie being dragged by her hair. I also had long, blonde hair, and a number of others had long, blonde hair, so it was quite often hard to tell who it was. But I’ve got photos of me handing out leaflets at places like Melbourne Grammar, me doing things in the City Square, handing out leaflets to publicise various things. 

So women were often photographed, and in the newspapers, just as much as – or probably as much as the men. Maybe not as much as the men, but certainly significantly. But we were also sort of regarded as these rather, you know, quirky, kind of – yeah. I think because newspapers probably liked to see women rather than men – you know, a bit more colourful, or something. The sexist newspapers of the day. 

If you know of a Melbourne woman involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!