Tag Archives: review

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).

This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.

I loved it. Clearly.

I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.

As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).

As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.

And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.

It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.

The Future is Female! Volume 2: 1970s

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

Lisa Yaszek has put together another very fine set of stories that highlight the variety of science fiction that has been produced by women, this time in the 1970s. Arranged chronologically by publication date, this fiction has some stories that are angry, and some that are more on the whimsical side; some that (I think) could only have been written by a woman, and others that don’t particularly reflect a gendered authorship (and then there’s the James Tiptree, Jr). Some feel like classic SF, others are more experimental. I didn’t love them all. As a set, this is a really amazing way to showcase the variety of what women can write and have written.

Some I’ve read before: “When It Changed” (Joanna Russ) always gets me and I hope will always be discussed as part of science fiction in general, and not ever just relegated to ‘battle of the sexes’ conversations. I don’t understand why we don’t talk more about “The Girl who was Plugged In” (Tiptree) when we discuss cyberpunk; “The Screwfly Solution” (Raccoona Sheldon) is always completely horrific, and so is “Wives” (Lisa Tuttle), for very different reasons. I have always loved “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (Vonda N. McIntyre) for its exploration of love and compassion – and same, in some ways, with “The Day before the Revolution” (Ursula K. Le Guin), although the latter is even more poignant; I always need to just stop and stare into the distance for a moment when I read it.

Of the others, there were several that stood out. I’ve read very little by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; “Frog Pond” was very nicely paced, and the reveals built up beautifully. Kate Wilhelm’s “The Funeral” was quietly terrifying as the state of America was slowly revealed – and these two, next to each other, were particularly distressing to read in the current state of the world. “The Anthropologist” (Kathleen M Sidney) feels in some ways like it’s in conversation with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, with its exploration of living between two very different worlds. And as someone who occasionally feels sad for Curiosity and Voyager etc, never being able to come home, “View from a Height” (Joan D Vinge) was something of a gut-punch. Gorgeous, but a bit harrowing.

… clearly, I think this anthology works for both people with some knowledge of the state of the 1970s field, and I believe it would also work for those who want an introduction to 1970s SF in general. It’s nicely comprehensive.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??

Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.

Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.

Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.

Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.

Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.

This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.

Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.

Making Australian History: Anna Clark

Not a review book! One that I saw in the delightful bookshop in Queenscliff and barely even stopped as I walked past, grabbed it, and paid for it.

(Who am I, reading historiography about Australian history? Australian history? My how I have changed.)

Sometimes I forget how much I love historiography. And I really, truly love it. A history of history writing/making itself? How much more meta can you get?? And Clark writes just so beautifully. This entire book is a delight.

Clark aims to present a history of how Australian History (the capital H is discussed very frankly and thoughtfully) has been written over… a very long period of time; and also how the writing of Australian History has helped to construct that history. Clark is under no illusions about the reality that History writing is part of the colonial project, and I think one of the great ongoing themes here is how Clark starts to unravel, deconstruct, illuminate, and reflect on that very process.

(Do the adjectives give a sense of how much I enjoyed this book?)

Another of the great aspects of this book for me is that it’s not entirely chronological – something else that she discusses frankly in the introduction. Chapters are thematic, and vaguely chronological, and also generally chronological within the chapter; but chronology is not the be-all of history writing, important as it is. I deeply enjoyed that there were chapters on ’emotion’ and ‘gender’ that ranged across time, to show how those things have affected history writing at various points.

Each chapter has a focal text, one that Clark uses as an instrumental text (in a broad sense) to get at a particular idea. Which is precisely something that I’ve done in the classroom, and it works really beautifully in the book to draw out and illustrate particular ideas. It’s a really great way of managing the flow of the chapters.

… it’s just really great. I think it serves as a good, thoughtful introduction to how Australian History has been written, thought about, and itself produced the Australia we live in today. Clark uses the ‘whispers’ and alternate texts and sometimes things that haven’t always been considered as history to give a sense of just what can be meant by ‘Australian history’. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of history, or historical theory, to enjoy this – although you do need to be prepared to really think about the ideas being presented.

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East

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

As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.

Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.

In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)

One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.

The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.

The Genesis of Misery, Neon Yang

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of September, 2022 (sorry; I promise it’s worth waiting for).

WHAT DID I JUST READ AND WHERE CAN I GET MORE OF IT?

… actually, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else quite like this. (Dare I hope to add ‘yet’?)

This was just… so much. So great and so complex and so enthralling. So fast-paced and so intricate. So many genders and so many alliances and betrayals and things-aren’t-as-they-seem; so many space battles. Also angels and messiahs and heretics and possibly divine intervention. Also an irritable and foul-mouthed protagonist who is out for the main chance and whom some people think might just be the path to salvation. Of some sort.

Where do I even begin? The story starts with one person (probably human) asking another (not human, taking many different shapes throughout the conversation) for ‘the story of Misery Nomaki’ – and what follows is that story, with all the narrator’s caveats about truth and consequence and revelation all being problematic. At the start of that story, Misery (she/they) is having a bad time, trying to make her way through a very large space station; she’s able to manipulate any holystone she comes across, which is useful, but that doesn’t necessarily help when you’re stuck in a warren of tunnels and don’t know where you’re going. Her delusion, Ruin, isn’t being of any help, and there are weird all-white, maybe-cloned saints that are freaking her out.

… and it just gets more quirky, and more clever, and more intricate, from there. Fighting princesses, treachery, giant battle mechs. Zero clear explanation of ‘holystone’ – holy obsidian, holy jasper, and so on – but some very tantalising hints; no real explanation of how saints actually happen, except that somehow they can live on starlight alone? Sometimes an author’s expectation that you’ll just go along with whatever whacky things they’ve created for their new world is overwhelming or irritating or enough to make a book Too Much Work. Not so here: there’s just enough explanation to make everything hang together – surely you don’t need saints explained, this is what they’re doing! – and the writing is so gripping, and Misery so enticing, that explanations can wait; I need to know what’s happening next RIGHT NOW.

Everything about this book worked for me.

Finally, something I’ve seen a couple of people mention that to me, at least, is a bit of a spoiler (in an odd way), but may be just what someone else needs in order to read this… it’s an historical thing that the story seems to be inspired by (I haven’t read confirmation of that, but it does make sense)… only read on if you’re now intrigued!

Continue reading →

The Year of Miracles (recipes about love + grief + growing things)

I was sent this book by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now; $44.99.

The memoir / cookbook genre is not one I knew I needed, but it turns out I do. When it’s done well, anyway. Looking over other food-type books I realise I do own a couple. I think I hope it accrues even more examples, and that they will be as well written as this.

Firstly, this book is gorgeous. The front cover there gives a sense of the illustrations – watercolours, I think? – that appear throughout the whole book. It’s a memoir of a year, and each month is a chapter and the first page of each gets a lovely, representative image; so do most of the recipes, and the headings for each get a band of colour. It’s the sort of book that’s a delight to literally flick through as pops of colour jump out.

Also: it has a ribbon. All cookbooks, and indeed every hardback, should come with a ribbon. It’s a fact; I don’t make the rules.

I haven’t read the first of Risbridger’s memoir/cookbooks (but watch me watch out for it now) so I don’t know about her life as described there, beyond what you glean from this one. But the prologue explains that her partner died a couple of years before, and at the start of 2020 (oh, what a phrase that is just resonant now) she has moved into a new house with one of her best friends to try and start anew. And then, you know. 2020 happens. But as we also know, life continues, and continued. Friends still exist and people still need to eat and plants can be planted, and love still exists. And this is really what the book is: a meditation on all those things. Risbridger reflects on grief and love, and coming to terms with the messy realities of how people affect us for good and ill – and how even when we love people we can resent doing things for or with them but simultaneously not resent it thanks to that love. Risbridger seems very honest in these pages. Memoirs are not my natural reading fodder but this one, I enjoyed.

The other aspect is the food, of course, and reading the recipes was also a delight. I am not the person who reads recipes for fun, as a rule, but these ones I did because Risbridger brings a chatty style even to her instructions. That won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I enjoyed it a lot. On making pie pastry: “Try not to work it too hard, but honestly? You’re probably fine. You’re making your own pastry” (p10). [Note: I was not entirely fine, but that’s probably because I didn’t have enough Parmesan in the pastry. Also, I’ve never grated butter for pastry; it’s messy but also a whole lot easier than trying to cube it.] The recipes are a glorious range from three-ingredient brownies (hint: a LOT of Nutella) to chicken pie, with dumplings and several soups and various condiments along the way. I have made the pie – chicken and mushroom and miso (I have bought miso! I’ve never used miso!), and it’s fantastic; her sour cherry and chocolate chip biscuits, which are meant to have marzipan but a) I didn’t have any and b) the other person wouldn’t enjoy them (burnt butter! what an idea!); and “Theo’s chicken”, which also has miso, and ketchup and ginger and garlic and sesame oil. You cook it super hot at first and then a bit lower, and the marinade basically burns; I didn’t love that part quite so much but overall it tasted fantastic. There are definitely other recipes in here that I’ll be trying, too.

This is a delight of a book.

The Atlas Six

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

This is one of those books where the originality lies primarily in the execution, rather than the initial premise. And this is in no way an insult! Reading a new take on old ideas is exciting.

The basics: six people with extraordinary gifts are chosen to learn about a secret institution. Things are, unsurprisingly, not what they seem – and there is a lot of interpersonal tension as well.

See? Not a radically new idea. But the execution and the details made this a deeply intriguing book.

The world is one where magic is real, and even the non-magic users know about. Hard to hide a magic university in the middle of New York, I suspect. Also, some people have used their talents to get (legally) spectacularly rich. Anyway: it seems most people don’t have astounding levels of magic. So the six people chosen to learn about the secrets are told they’re pretty much the strongest, most gifted magic-users of their generation. Great way to manage those egos right up. Anyway, they are invited to learn about the Library of Alexandria – now somewhat metaphorical, as it’s not in Alexandria, although it is still a library. And that’s one of the key drawcards: the right, and ability, to search the library for anything they want… if they get through the year.

So we have magic, and we have knowledge, and we have massive personal conflict – mostly because of the individual personalities. Intriguingly, the narrative moves between all six of the initiates, meaning that there’s not automatically one of them the reader is guided towards supporting. While some of them are absolutely unpleasant people, this multi-focus allows the reader to see their complexities and thus make the story that much more complex.

It’s a clever set up, and the twists are just as clever, and the characters are right on that borderline of horrible-but-not-so-horrible (unlike, say, Heathcliff). Clearest sign I enjoyed it? Can’t wait to read the sequel.

Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl

I do love a good adventure/ travel story, so when I saw this in a secondhand book shop I thought – why would I not read the book that as far as I can tell, arguably started the modern version of ‘person goes on crazy adventure and writes about it’?

I am… ambivalent, now, having read it. Basically one part positive, two parts negative.

Positive: it really is a riveting story. Six men in 1947 on a balsa wood raft, sailing from Peru to Polynesia. They have a radio and a sextant, and modern clothes and sleeping bags; but their raft is genuinely balsa wood, held together with rope. They have no particularly good way to steer. It’s made (apparently) as accurately as they could to match the descriptions from Spanish conquerors to the area. They truly have remarkable experiences, and they went 100-odd days crossing the Pacific. That is epic, as are their encounters with a whale shark, various other wildlife, storms, and just life in general. For that aspect, I don’t regret reading it.

The negatives… well. To start with the journey itself – no, even before. The description of cutting down massive old balsa trees for the construction of the raft had me cringing. Then there’s the seemingly-wanton ‘fishing’ while they’re at sea: they’re hooking and killing far more shark and other fish than they eat, which is just awful. (It is kind of hilarious to read of the flying fish just randomly landing on the boat, I will admit, and eating those makes sense – especially when they’ve been piling up throughout the night.) Also, Thor at least is married and… in the entire book, no mention of the wife. Ever. Not even before the journey, when he’s in America trying to convince people of his theories.

And, yes, here’s the rub, the sticking point, the main problem. Thor goes on this journey to show that it would have been possible for humans to sail from South America to Polynesia, and thereby be the progenitors of at least some of the people living in those islands, and therefore responsible for the impressive statues and pyramids and other ‘advanced’ things that can be found on some islands. But not the Inca, oh no, and not the Olmec, or anyone else you might have heard of: rather, it was a white, bearded race who apparently came before the Inca. And were more civilised, and taught them everything and then got chased off. So… yeah. His entire premise is deeply, deeply racist. This also comes out in descriptions of the Polynesians and others. I’m privileged because I’m white; if a person of native South American – anywhere on that continent – or Polynesian or, I’m afraid, Jewish descent said they were thinking of reading this, I would want to have a good long conversation with them so that they knew what they were getting into. This absolutely means the entire book is problematic, and being a ripping adventure yarn in no way excuses it. It is written in 1947, which offers some context for why Heyerdahl thought it was appropriate to write such things and the publishers apparently had no problem with it – hey, no Polynesian is likely to read it, amiright? and why would they complain even if they did? etc.

Did it have fun bits to read? Totally. Is the book problematic? Absolutely. Did I buy the other two books he wrote, to try and show that Egyptians AND Mesopotamians got to South America by boat? I absolutely did and fully intend to read them to rip the theories to shreds.

Rocannon’s World

Many years ago I had this idea for essays about Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. They’ve been sitting around in my brain for ages, so I thought I’d post a short bit from the first one. Partly as a kick to myself, partly to see what other people think… if you’ve read Rocannon’s World I’d be interested to hear what you think (it’s still very draft!).

Narrative conventions: questioning “the hero”

Le Guin’s playing with narrative conventions begins in the Prologue. Semley’s experience fits a pattern for those who spend time with the fairies under the hill – one night with them being, in reality, much longer. However, although her story seems at first that of the hero on a quest, Semley definitely does not fit that pattern. Her quest is ultimately pointless, since she gains the jewel but loses her family. Thus Le Guin questions the very idea of the hero’s quest, with one objective met but devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, the idea of the hero has already been challenged through the fact that it is Semley, not Durhal her husband, who has the idea and the courage to undertake the journey. 

As the main character, it might be expected that Rocannon would be the hero. However, he never plays into that role. It isn’t that he is a coward; he rejects Mogien’s suggestion that they find the ship given to the Clayfolk so that Rocannon can leave the planet, saying “I’m not going to run off eight years into the future and find out what happened next!” (27). However, he rarely plays a direct part in the action. He does participate in combat at one point, and gets in a shot at an enemy, but then himself gets shot through the leg. When he does manage to have an impact on events he is closer to an Odysseus than anything else, using words, silence and cunning to get his way – sometimes. For instance, when he is about to be burned at the stake, he uses his impermasuit to withstand the heat and refuses to speak to his captor Zgama. He doesn’t rescue himself, though, relying on a companion to do that; neither does he rescue his friends from the strange insect-like people, this time relying on the help of strangers to do so. When he and a companion are threatened by ruffians, he gives up Semley’s necklace rather than attempting to fight or connive his way out. Thus, while he is the protagonist, he is not heroic. Mogien is far more traditionally the hero, riding his wingsteed into battle and slaying enemies. Interestingly, there is never a comparison made between the two: Mogien, while not as knowledgeable as Rocannon, is never shown to be a thug; Rocannon is not lacking in manliness for not matching Mogien. Le Guin suggests that survival doesn’t necessarily have to do with heroism, and that there are multiple ways of being a man and being useful.

Story and reality

The Prologue opens with a question: “How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?” (3). It continues, “How can you tell fact from legend, truth from truth?” – proposing that legend is, in fact, a form of truth. The opening of the story proper furthers this theme: “So ends the first part of the legend; and all of it is true. Now for some facts, which are equally true, from the League Handbook for Galactic Area Eight” (22). Mythology and academic texts are thus given equal stature in the matter of ‘truth’.