The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl
I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.
So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)
What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.
I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.
High Times in the Low Parliament
Me, two chapters in: does ‘stoner’ mean something other than what I think it means? I’m confused.
A “lesbian stoner fantasy” set around an acrimonious European Parliament – dysfunctional thanks in large part to the Anglanders – with fairies who call humans ‘leggers’ and are more likely to pinch than party with them. This novella is hilarious.
If Parliament can’t make a decision, then the fairies are going to drown everyone involved – and as an Australian, I can tell you that the spiteful attitudes of the deputies, and their refusal to cooperate, all very much struck a chord. Enter Lana, a scribe with good penmanship and a winning way with the ladies, who gets dragooned into being the equivalent of Hansard. She spends a significant amount of time seeing bluebirds and flowers courtesy of various substances (it’s unclear whether these are illicit or not), makes some unlikely friends and, as the title suggests, has some high times in the parliamentary setting.
It’s not claiming to make big statements about the way politics or parliaments work, how to improve them, or how to get factions to stop being factions. It is a rollicking fun time with some very funny moments, some poignant ones, and a pace that left me breathless.
River Cottage: Great Salads
I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now.
So I’ve had this book in my kitchen for a few months now, and I just… keep not getting around to reviewing it. Obviously. And there are a few reasons for that. December and January were a hectic time for a variety of reasons, and although summer does mean salads I only used this a couple of times. Which leads into the other reason for why it’s taken me so long to review it: I haven’t been that inspired by it. That is, I like the idea of what this book is doing, but a lot of the specific recipes just… haven’t grabbed me. And I do think this is a me-thing, not the fault of the book.
Partly, I think it’s because this is a British book. There are ingredients in here that I either don’t know, that would be hard to get, or that I just don’t love. Buckwheat groats; gooseberries; chicory; kohlrabi… they’re not in everything, but I do find it off-putting when I browse through. So that’s one thing – a me-thing. I’m also not a massive fan of sweet things in salad, which is totally a me thing, and the idea of raspberries with tomato just seems appalling! Perhaps, too, I’ve just been a bit sluggish (heh) with salads lately. As I flick through, I am reminded that there really are salads in here that I would enjoy. So I should try them.
A few that I have tried, and really enjoyed:
- Zucchini, toasted buckwheat, goat’s cheese and dill: didn’t use the buckwheat… don’t remember what I used instead, actually. Hmm. Hmm. Maybe chopped almonds? It was good, anyway. Zucchini and goat’s cheese FTW.
- Fennel, celery and apple with creamy almond dressing. Delicious.
- Barbecued leeks, spelt and sunflower seeds: BBQ leeks! So good. Again, didn’t use spelt; think I used barley instead.
- Charred zucchini, broad beans, snow peas and fresh curds: the fresh curds made me impatient; I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again – didn’t think they lent anything much to the salad.
Yeh yeh, I just need to challenge myself, and actually try more of the recipes. If you’re interested in varied salad recipes, then I suspect this will be a good book for you; there’s definitely combinations I hadn’t thought of, and many of them really do intrigue me (cavolo nero with peach – hmm – and cashews and goat’s cheese… curried roots with pearled barley and parsley…).
Jewel Box: a collection from E. Lily Yu
I’m afraid this is coming from Erewhon Books in October 2023. Which is a long time to wait (I read it c/ the publisher and NetGalley) and TLDR: it’s going to be worth waiting for.
I have a bad habit: I forget the names of short story writers much more easily, and much faster, than I forget the names of novelists. I don’t think it’s because I value one more than the other, but perhaps reading things in anthologies I pay slightly less attention to the author’s name.
Whatever the reason, I always forget that E. Lily Yu is a spectacular author whose work I love very, very much. Fortunately, this collection has reminded me of that fact with all the subtlety of a shovel to the face. Pretty much every story in this collection is wonderful and thought-provoking and I am beyond happy that I got to read it and see all of this wonderful work in one place.
A few highlights:
“The View from the Top of the Stair” – a woman (I think) whose great passion in life is staircases, who gets an inheritance that allows her to indulge her passion, and what life can be like when you get to be at least somewhat fulfilled. The passion is never mocked, it’s not a tragic story of ‘never what you wish for’, and it’s also not at all what you expect.
“The Time Invariance of Snow” – one of the stories I remembered that I had already read, as I was reading. A truly remarkable spin on the Snow Queen: it opens with the heading “The Devil and The Physicist”, which gives a small indication of how Yu is approaching the ideas.
“Courtship Displays of the American Birder” – heartbreaking and beautiful and lyrical.
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” – witches and knights and dragons, but not at all as you think you know them.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” – after reading this one, I had to go stare at a wall for a while. Friendship and cancer and unicorns, going on when everything is awful and finding magic in the mundane.
“Ilse, who saw clearly” – is not the story I was expecting from the opening; stolen eyes and a girl who doesn’t fit in, learning a craft and then still not fitting in… another one that left me unable to just blithely go on to the next story.
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” – almost certainly my introduction to Yu’s work. Wasps who are conquerors and map-makers, bees who get conquered and some of them become anarchists… it doesn’t tell you everything about Yu’s work but I suspect if this one doesn’t work for you, then I suspect her work in general won’t.
This collection is magnificent. “Jewel Box” indeed.
Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander, and Adultery
I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out in May 2023.
It’s incredibly hard to write modern biographies of ancient women. Not least because most ancient historians didn’t care that much about women as individuals; they only mattered when they intersected with men (… not too different from many wikipedia entries today, actually), and also for Roman historians they were often used as literary devices – history writing being quite different in the first few centuries AD in Rome from what it is generally accepted to be in the West today. SO that leaves a serious paucity of information for the person who wants to write a serious biography of, say, Messalina. I have a fantastic biography of Agrippina the Younger on my shelf, which does a good job of trying to consider Agrippina as a person, rather than just a mother and/or power-mad; one of Theodora that is slightly less successful but made a valiant attempt. And now, at least, Messalina: a woman whose name has become a byword (and at one point medicalised) for the over-sexed and never-satisfied woman, whose sexual depravity was the source of her power, and whose only use of that power was evil.
I loved this biography a lot. Messalina was human! Who knew?
The author gives what I think is an excellent overview of the social and cultural and immediate historical situation in Rome in the early Julio-Claudian period, in particular looking at the ways in which expressions of and usage of power had been altered with the change (albeit begrudgingly accepted) from republic to empire. And the point is to situate Messalina within that. (Had I completely forgotten just how illustrious her lineage was? Oh yes. Perhaps I never really knew – descended from Mark Antony! And from Octavian/Augustus’ sister! Very impressive.)
There’s a good attempt at reconstructing just what sort of thing Messalina was doing after Claudius became emperor, as well as logical (rather than misogynistic) rationale for it: like she’s shoring up her own power base, and that of Claudius, and that of her son. The arguments here are persuasive, although of course we’ll never know. I particularly liked that Cargill-Martin never tries to completely purify Messalina: did she have affairs? Possibly; maybe even probably! Were other women doing so? yes. Could there actually be political as well as passionate reasons for doing so? Absolutely. Was it possible for Messalina to both want to have sex AND be a political actor? WHY YES, IT WAS.
Basically I think this is the sort of (properly) revisionist history that a nuanced understanding of women in history enables. Messalina can be treated as a human, as a worthy subject for serious history: she made mistakes, she made what we would think of today as some poor choices, she was constrained by her historical context, and she really didn’t deserve the way that last 2000 years have treated her. Especially Juvenal’s poetry; he can go jump.
Highly recommended particularly to anyone interested in early Roman empire history, or women’s history.
Grave, by Allison C. Meier
I read this book via NetGalley. It’s out on Feb 9, 2023.
As long as these are being published by Bloomsbury Academic, I will keep reading these. (… there’s a joke here relating to the subject matter of this book, but I won’t go there.)
For a book about graves, this book isn’t morbid at all. Which is exactly the tone that I would expect from this series. It takes graves, and the reason for graves, seriously; but it doesn’t dwell morosely on the idea of death. Nor does it romanticise it. Instead, this is a thoughtful and engaging examination of burial practises – particularly in post-colonisation North America – and how and why they’ve changed. That time and place is important to note; while various global practises are mentioned, like the very earliest burials known and Tibetan sky burials and others, this is focused on one specific place and time. And that’s fair: this is a short book! It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing tome. I guess this could be seen as a snapshot of a place that has changed a lot in terms of its ethnic makeup over the last few centuries, that has (for better or worse) often been seen as leading the way in innovation, as well as sometimes dragging its heels on change (hello metric system). So it’s a useful way of getting a glimpse at one history of grave practises.
The author is someone who has led cemetery tours and has done a lot of thinking about what graves and burial practises mean. I learnt surprising things: like, in the USA, it’s quite standard for a body to be embalmed before burial in a coffin. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard in Australia (I just looked up one undertaker group; embalming is an optional extra). A sobering aspect was the history of unmarked graves, and segregation within cemeteries (a relatively new word, apparently!) – I know at least some old general cemeteries in Victoria are, or were, Catholic/Protestant separated (and different areas for Chinese dead, especially in goldrush areas and I guess there must be a few towns with small, historical, Jewish sections?). I most enjoyed the fact that there are new practises being developed. I had already learnt of ‘water cremation’ (yes, it’s a nonsensical term), which is far more eco friendly than the standard creation; but ‘natural burial’ – like a pine coffin that degrades quickly – and other more environmental options are just going to be increasingly necessary. We already have issues with perpetual leases on graves…
Anyway, this is yet another excellent entry into this series. I loved it and continue to look forward to more.
After the Dragons – Cynthia Zhang
SOMEONE gave me a voucher to buy books for my birthday, and I was stumped. I love a voucher but then I get all – I must buy The Right Thing! I don’t want to waste it! So what books to buy?? And then I remembered that (at that stage) the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist had just been announced, so there was an answer to that question: I bought a bunch from that list. And After the Dragons is one of them.
In the cover quote, Mary Robinette Kowal describes this book as having “quiet intimacy”, and that’s so right. It’s not about epic events (like She Who Became the Sun); it’s about the everyday joys and tragedies, in a world with lots of problems.
It’s set in a kind of tomorrow – it’s not far future – but in a world sideways to ours, because there are dragons. Not epic mythological dragons for slaying – it’s unclear whether those were ever real even here – but small, say pet-size. Indeed sometimes they are kept as pets… and as with kittens and puppies, sometimes they get dumped by their owners. And sometimes they just live as wild animals, and that means having to adjust to living in urban areas and with humans. Which doesn’t always go well. I was thinking about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern – still probably the fictional dragons my mind goes to first – and these are more the fire-lizards of Dragonsdawn rather than the later, genetically altered dragons.
For all that the dragons are there, this world is very much ours. There’s climate issues, there’s political tension, there’s racism; poverty and illness and family trouble on the personal level. The story is told from the perspectives of Beijing resident Kai – Xiang Kaifie – an artist, carer for dragons, and ill; and Eli, Elijah Ahmed, biracial American student visiting the hometown of his deceased grandmother, who gets drawn into Kai’s world of rescuing street dragons.
As I said, this is not epic. It’s low stakes on a global scale, although high stakes on a personal one: health and love and relationships and what the future holds are all immensely important to the people involved. It hints at troubling systemic issues but always focuses on the people at its heart. If you need a relief from world-shattering events this is a good choice, although I’m not promising that it’s all sunshine and light (it’s not). But it is a delight, and it is definitely worth your time.
Can’t wait to read more from Cynthia Zhang.
Death metal, by T Coles
I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out now.
Death metal is very much not my scene, but music documentaries are; Coles references the documentary series Metal Evolution from some years ago, which I adored. As a musical history of the last four decades, I found this really quite fascinating. Although it must be noted that reading the names of some of the albums and songs, as well as a description of what they’re singing about, wasn’t always pleasant. So if you’re really not in the zone for some lightly gross description, avoid this!
Surprising things include the fact that I actually recognised some names of bands! More surprising though is that the second chapter begins with a mention of Hildegard von Bingen, and the fact that in the morality play attributed to her from 1151, the instructions are for the Devil to be played with a harsh voice. Coles draws a comparison here to the ‘death growl’ that helps make death metal what it is. So that was quite a moment.
The book follows a straightforward historical line from the beginnings of death metal and its early influences in the 1980s, through to when they are finishing the book in late 2021. This means that some of what is being discussed is coming from that a period when stuff that’s regarded today as on nose was still accepted by most of the scene. The main issue here is the misogyny of some of the lyrics, and I was very relieved that in the final chapter Coles does reflect on how problematic much of that early stuff is, and how at least some modern bands are actively pushing back.
Does this make me want to listen to death metal? Nope. Does it make me appreciate it more as a musical genre? On an abstract level, yes. It’s good that books like this exist.
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society
I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in January 2023, from WW Norton.
Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts – appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on – and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there’s something lacking in the second.
The introduction to the concept of “the Middle Ages” is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society – particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99% – developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through ‘pop culture’ like ballads and Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a “farmer’s wife” is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly).
I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn’t be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead… and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It’s painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together – think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn’t feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other.
Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too – the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does’t detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.
Stroller, by Amanda Parrish Morgan
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 20 October 2022.
Of the four Object Lessons books I’ve read so far, this is by far the most personal. It’s really quite remarkably personal, actually, and I admire Morgan for what she says about herself to illustrate the points she’s making more broadly about society.
While the focus of the book is the stroller (or pram), this is very much a book about motherhood, mothering, expectations on and of mothers, and how consumer goods like the stroller fit within that. I am not a mother, but even I know some of the pressures and expectations from society imposed on, and internalised by, mothers. Morgan describes herself as someone who didn’t expect to be a mother from early on; and as someone whose identity was strongly tied to being a runner. Both of these things influenced the way she perceived maternity, and the stroller. Her early recounting of telling a (not-mother) friend that she’s going to try and have a baby, and the quite awful reaction from that friend (“That’ll be the end of all your running”, p6), sets up a lot of what Morgan picks up through the book (and made me worriedly think back to how I’ve reacted to child-announcements from friends. I don’t think I’ve ever been that awful?). Morgan relates her experiences of juggling not wanting to fall into the ‘must have everything’ trap, to not be swayed by alarmist or aspirational advertising. She talks about juggling routines, two preschools, her own desire to run (between two preschools, with a double stroller); and she relays the commentary she received from onlookers, too, which honestly just made me mad.
Morgan mixes in academic discussion, too: of how American society emphasises the ‘production’ part of ‘reproduction’, with the mother as unskilled worker; the use of the word ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ and what they suggest about the relationship between mother and child and the whole process of the second leaving the first. And then how baby products get tied into identity, and parenting strategies, and what all of those things mean and say about you and your choices. It emphasised a lot of things for me: just how harshly mothers are treated sometimes, how many minefields need to be navigated, and how unapproachable so many of our cities and spaces are. Also, my goodness it’s harder in America than in Australia (paid maternity leave, etc).
It’s not quite the book I was expecting – there’s not a huge in-depth history of strollers and their alternatives, for instance, although there is some – but it was nonetheless engrossing and… well, I want to say enjoyable, but that’s not quite the right word. I read it quickly and with fascination.