Tag Archives: review

Queens of the Wild

I received this book via NetGalley. It’s out at the end of May, 2022.

As an Arts student of the late 90s, who did do some mythology-type subjects, I have vaguely come across some of the ideas that Hutton explodes here. So that was quite the trip.

The main idea: that the four concepts, or beings, or narrative tools – Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, The Lady of the Night, and the Cailleach – are in no way part of a pagan religion that has survived sin Europe since pre-Christian times. No matter all the stories about witches as pagans or Beltane feasts.

In the opening Hutton revives a differentiation (first proposed by himself in 1991) between two concepts: ‘surviving paganism’, where a pre-Christian religion has actually survived beneath/within Christianity; and ‘pagan survival’, where a belief of object has been redeployed from a pre-Christian to a Christian religious context.

This book has a LOT of historiography, as Hutton explores some of the why and some of the how for the development of the idea that four specific concepts have a long, pagan, pedigree. The very first chapter was probably my favourite, as he explores the development of the study of folklore and how various academic and non-academic types explored and theorised beliefs – especially peasant beliefs – and how attitudes to those sorts of things changed over time. Following the thread from one person to another – occasionally from just one article to an explosion of theories, books, films, and other academic articles – was astonishing.

In the four main chapters, Hutton seeks to find the four characters he has chosen to interrogate – to find the earliest mentions, to find their possible connections to pre-Christian ideas, to find the ways in which they’ve been used in the academic literature. In every case, he comes to the conclusion that none of these are true ‘surviving paganism’ – always with the caveat that more information may be found, and that of course there’s a dearth of written information for so much of the early part of the pre-Christian/Christian boundary. He’s pretty convincing, unsurprisingly.

Moderately academic, but I think accessible for a reader with only a basic knowledge of both the historiography and the characters he explores (which is me).

Breadsong: How Baking Changed Our Lives

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out today (3 May 2022); $39.99.

I actually finished reading the memoir part of this book a couple of weeks ago – the day I received it in fact. But I had to wait until I had baked a couple of the recipes before I could do a legit review!

This is two books in one. The second part is a cookbook – all bread or bread-adjacent (a couple of biscuits and cakes). So far I have made the Miracle Overnight White Loaf, which is a marvellous no-knead, overnight (duh) bread that you cook in casserole dish; and today I made the focaccia, which uses the same dough but you press it out to make focaccia. Both of these are AMAZING and will definitely be in high rotation. A large section of the recipes is sourdough, and… I’ve done the sourdough thing, and I’m just not sure I can face going back to the world of the starter. I’ll have to give it some more thought. There are definitely other recipes I want to try – bialys, and their mini panettone buns. Each of the recipes is laid out beautifully – I love that there is a different font for the chat at the start, and the ingredients, and the recipe itself. It’s also got delightful photos and in general the cookbook aspect is just fabulous.

But the recipes are only half the book. The first half of the book is a memoir. This book is written by Kitty and her father, Al – they tell the story together and they each have a distinct font. It’s the story of how they ended up running a bakery together, and while that sounds all heartwarming – and it is, absolutely – but it starts because baking a loaf of bread is one thing that Al tries to help Kitty with her crippling anxiety. Like, anxiety that made going to school impossible, getting out of bed barely feasible, nothing in the world seeming worthwhile. I deeply appreciated the honesty that Al in particular presents here – that he and his wife did not see what was happening at the start, that they were bewildered by the change in their youngest daughter, and that they struggled to figure out what to do. Kitty, of course, is also very honest: she didn’t know why it happened, either, and makes no excuses for it, or for feeling the way she did. It just was.

The book explores the slow movement from Kitty deciding she wanted to bake a loaf of bread – to wanting to make more, and therefore being allowed to use neighbouring ovens – to giving bread away because she was making so much, leading to a subscription service, then a pop-up, and then an actual real bakery and high street shop. Well, I say slow, but it all happened over about 2 years and that’s just incredible.

It’s the sort of book that makes me think “maybe I could be a baker and make bread all the time and bring joy to people!” and then you keep reading and you realise just how much stress the whole thing is, and how early you have to get up (unless you’re the Margaret River bakers who sell their bread from 3pm onwards, LIFE GOALS) and… yeh. I’ll just stick with making bread for people in my house, thanks.

As a memoir, the book is a delight. It’s honest and thoughtful and funny (when appropriate). It’s got enough context of other things going on that you know bread isn’t absolutely everything, but it’s also very clear that the focus is the story of Kitty not being able to go to school —> opening the bakery; it’s not a complete autobiography. The different fonts make the dual authorship work really well, there’s lovely pictures and photos throughout, and I really did sit and read the 150-odd pages in one day, because I started and then I had to keep going. I didn’t really need another bread book in my life but I definitely needed this book.

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??

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).

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.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

 Well. I have a lot of thoughts! And… spoilers, I guess? If you don’t know the play, then definitely spoilers; and if you’d rather not know about the staging, then those will be too.

Straight up: I loved it. I think it’s beautiful to watch, I think it captures the play’s ideas, and I thought the actors were generally fantastic.

(Keep in mind, I am no drama teacher, and neither am I a film critic! I’ll probably have missed the point of some elements…)

As a film:

  • Most obviously, it’s filmed in black and white, which was awesome. It was, oddly, so very rich – saturated, I guess – I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing much without colour. It made the fades between scenes more interesting, and it made everything much more stark.
  • Some of the segues were glorious. And the use of silhouettes was brilliant.
  • The use of birds throughout was a very nice motif: they’re the first thing you see – and, I realised only after a scene with the witches, it’s three of them; and circling “through the fog and filthy air”, in fact. Then Duncan sees them flying overhead, then you see them at other points too. In particular, the witches turn into birds after their final scene with Macbeth – and when Macbeth thinks he’s having a go at Banquo’s ghost, everyone else sees him flapping at a bird. (And Lady Macbeth opens a window and shoos the bird out, which is GOLD.)
  • The movie is basically without context. There’s no attempt to make Washington have a Scottish accent, and Brendan Gleeson as Duncan has his Irish accent on full display. And then there’s the PLACE, which I adored: it’s utterly unplaceable. The witches and Macbeth and Banquo could be walking across dirt, or it could be sand, or dust. No idea! Duncan’s camp could be three tents or dozens; no idea! And then when we get inside, Lady Macbeth is walking down a corridor and Duncan arrives to a courtyard – but there’s no sense of how large this place is. Actually that’s not quite true; the bits of building we see are unreal, and far too large. Even when inside, there’s a tight focus on people, and especially on faces, so we basically don’t know what their surroundings are like most of the time. The only time we see a full building is the castle of Fife – and it’s a solid tower plonked on a cliff, also looking unreal. It’s almost like a cinematic version of a theatre – all hints at buildings, not whole. It lends the film a claustrophobic feel.
  • The clothing is also interesting. It’s definitely not modern, suits and so on; but neither is it full-on medieval, or even faux medieval. Macbeth looks like he’s wearing a gambeson, the padded coat under armour, the whole time; Lady Macbeth is wearing long dresses but they’re not of a time. Timeless, in fact.

The story:

  • Opening with JUST the witches’ voices was really interesting… and then to see just one witch, I was intrigued. But THEN she stands above water and there’s two witches in the reflection, and THEN they come out of the water? Very cool, and a nice way to differentiate this version. And Kathryn Hunter, the actress, actually DID all those contortions??
  • Banquo’s eyebrows are quite the statement.
  • This Macbeth is never happy. Not even at the start.
  • They showed a dagger when he’s hallucinating, but then it’s actually the door handle! Very clever.
  • Duncan is awake when Macbeth murders him! Now that’s a choice – and somehow makes it worse, I think.
  • I paid close attention to Lady Macbeth’s hair, since it’s so often used as a signal for a woman’s state of mind, and… I think it is here? But not so dramatically as in other films. When she’s in control, her hair is very neatly and tightly and elaborately up. It’s in a plait when in bed, but that just makes sense. And at the end, when she’s sleepwalking, it’s definitely more on the loose-and-wild side.
  • They kept the porter scene, which… I guess you need to let Macduff into the castle; they made him a bit silly but definitely didn’t play it up (and I think it may have been cut down, but it’s been a while since I read/saw it).
  • The murderers are the least murderous-looking murderers I’ve ever seen.
  • What the heck is up with Ross?? He talks to an “old man”, who is played by the woman who plays the witches; he seems to be on everyone’s side. And then he’s the third murderer?? And he’s the one to find Fleance and consciously allows him to live? I’m very confused and intrigued. Because THEN you see Ross approaching Lady Macbeth at the top of the stairs – cut – and then Lady Macbeth is dead at the bottom of the stairs, so… ?? Ross is then the one to bring the crown – and Macbeth’s head – to Malcolm. And finally, the film ends with Ross going back to the old man, who has been hiding Fleance, and they ride off together … and when they get to a dip in the road, they don’t appear again – but a big flock of birds fly up and away… Ambiguous, to say the least.
  • I’m always a fan of ‘Lady Macbeth as one of the witches’ and she puts something into Macbeth’s wine… and then he wakes up ‘tomorrow’ and there are the three witches, in the castle. So that’s another ambiguous touch.
  • The testing of Malcolm is NOT included, which is an interesting choice. It does make the play longer, and it can be a bit confusing. I feel like there might have been a few other bits with Malcolm that were cut, early on; so Coen has chosen to focus just on Macbeth, and not bother with the comparison with the saintlier Malcolm.

This was just wonderful and I expect it will be embraced with joy by many English and drama teachers. And, hopefully, people who haven’t seen a Shakespeare production in years / ever.

Spear, by Nicola Griffith

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

I adore the Arthurian mythos, and in particular that it can keep being reworked by different authors with different intentions and get completely different results that are still clearly linked. Most recently I read Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and it shook me to the core… and now Nicola Griffith gives me something completely and utterly other.

( Which begs the question, Can you read and enjoy this with no knowledge of the Arthur stories? Absolutely. And in fact it would mean that you wouldn’t have the same looming dread / fear / second-guessing that I did, trying to figure out who was meant to be who and would Griffith include that particular thing and oh noooo…. )

This was nothing short of amazing.

To begin at the end: I really enjoyed Griffith’s Author’s Note at the end, explaining both her choices and her inspirations. It wasn’t necessary, but it shows very nicely how Griffith sees herself fitting into the existing canon, and how her choices were influenced by archaeology and other sources. Also, her acerbic “crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain” – yes indeed.

Griffith has set her Arthur in the very early medieval period – the Romans are gone but the Normans aren’t there (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise who the Redcrests were (Roman soldiers)). It’s the beginning of Arturus ruling a fairly small area; he is gathering Companions to help him fight off invaders and also to try and give some sort of peace, and lack of banditry, to his area. But the focus of the story is not on him: it’s on Per, Peretur, who has many names and none, who is on a quest to figure out who she is and where she fits. Because oh yes, this is Perceval / Parsifal as a woman, following in that grand tradition of “women have always fought” and having the same adventures as any of the men might. Griffith uses some of the medieval stories as a starting point – her love, and deep knowledge, of the genre is clear; and she tells a rich and compelling and human story that I just devoured.

One of the most intriguing things from an Arthurian perspective is where Griffith chooses to stop the story – which I’m not going to spoil. But it does make me hopeful of more in this world; she herself mentions the possibility in the Author’s Note, so now I guess I just have to sit here and wait. Because shut up and take my money already.