Authors

Review: “Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny” by Anna Goldsworthy [2013]

unfinished-business-sex-freedom-and-misogynyThere has been a notable surge in narrative non-fiction on the idea of misogyny in Australia (the excellent Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien and The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers). It has become quite topical due to several high profile events within the last year, most notably the rape and murder of Jill Meagher and the axing of our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

This essay begins with one of the more memorable speeches Julia Gillard made during her term. The speech is not one on politics but rather, an accusation against the male members of the opposition party (namely, the opposition leader Tony Abbott) for constantly viewing the Prime Minister of Australia as a woman first and foremost. The constant gender jibes and insults that Gillard has had to put up with during her term that, arguably, a male PM would have not had to endure. Gillard’s personal life was particularly under scrutiny as she is also unmarried,  in a defacto relationship and has never had children (“deliberately barren”, as a shock jock elegantly phrased it).

Aside from that, Goldsworthy leads into a lively discussion of what feminism is in today’s society when many in the younger generation have eschewed that term. Have we really come as far as we had hoped as a society where there is gender equality?

The essay also briefly explores the perception of the female as a writer as Goldsworthy wonders about

… the suggestion that women – by writing about ‘smaller’ topics such as friendship, motherhood and domesticity – ghettorise themselves from a male readership. Similar criticisms have rarely been made of the male writer, lovingly documenting his midlife crisis. The assumption is that women, as the accommodating sex, are better prepared to read across gender. – p. 32

I think that is an excellent point. I think awhile ago, there was a discussion on the idea of ‘gender’ writing. Is there really such a thing? Can you really tell if an author is female/male/ungendered exclusively by their writing? From authorship Goldsworthy moves across to the image of the woman and how she constructs herself. No matter what she does, she will always have preconceived expectations on her simply because she is female. The way she does or does not do her hair, make-up and the amount of clothing she wears. She will be under scrutiny no matter what she does despite the progress society has seemingly made:

As clothing continues to disappear, the body itself becomes more stylized. The gowns of our forebears may have been restrictive, but they concealed any number of modern-day female sins – cellulite, varicose veins, leg hair, armpit hair, pubic hair. The more we were liberated from these garments, the fiercer the scrutiny we stepped into. – p. 41

We may be out of the corsets but are we even now more restricted by the invisible cage built around us? The cage we build around ourselves to fit into society?

A very interesting essay and it’s also a reminder that despite the progress in society, we still have a way to go to achieve gender equality.

Here is the video of that speech by Julia Gillard that made such an impact:

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Penguins, Green

Penguin has released a new series of cheap and cheerful classics. I think I have raved about the ingenuity of the reissuing of the Orange classic series before and bringing long forgotten classics back to the mass market. It’s also nice to see Penguin continue to embody the company’s original idea that good literature should be accessible to all. I just love how they freshen up the old titles. The new Green series harks back to the original Green crime series. The titles all look amazing and, of course, those lovely looking green spines wouldn’t look too shaby on my bookcase next to the numerous Orange Penguins I have collected. First off my list to purchase will be this:

greenpenguin

 

I read it awhile ago after a serious hunt and sourced it at a library. That copy was old, dusty and smelled a little mouldy. It was a wonderful read and now it will be great to own a copy too. You can find the complete list of the fifty titles here.

(Disclaimer: It looks like I’m raving a lot about Penguin but this isn’t a paid advertisement. I just really love how they keep invigorating old Classics!)

Review: “Berlin Syndrome” by Melanie Joosten [2011]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Scribe.

It is Berlin, 2006 and Claire, a woman from Melbourne, is mid-way drifting through a backpacking slash working holiday through the old Soviet countries. Claire is an architectural photographer and is working on a coffee table book of Soviet buildings. While visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Claire meets a local man, Andi, who randomly offers her strawberries. Delighted by this chance encounter, Claire sits down to chat with Andi who lets on the meeting may not have been random:

‘Sometimes I like to just sit there and complicate the world.’

He had watched for her reaction.

Clare had laughed, throwing her head back in a pantomime of enjoyment. Would it annoy him after some time? Would he stop trying to make her laugh?

Complicate? You mean contemplate…but it’s very funny.’

He had laughed with her. It was a good choice. He had almost gone with compensate. Consummate. Concentrate. Consecrate. Complicate had definitely been the best choice. – p. 15

Claire and Andi both connect and are attracted to each other but neither work up the courage to say anything. They go their separate ways but through another chance encounter at a bookstore a few days later, Claire goes home with Andi. The two begin a seemingly normal relationship and both Claire and Andi connect through their mutual disconnection in the world. Claire has left and given up keeping in touch with her friends and family, only sending her mother a few emails here and there to let her know that Claire is alright. Constantly travelling, Claire is searching for something that she cannot define and constantly looking into the distance.

‘But maybe we are always looking forward to something else,’ he  said … ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Not if there are things to look forward to.’

‘It is impossible to be present in the present.’ [Claire] – p. 51

Andi only has his father with whom he shares a stilted relationship. Both are alone in the world. The romance develops but it soon disintegrates into something entirely sinister beginning with a locked front door:

She felt slighted, wanted to kick something. She gave the door a half-hearted nudge with the toe of her shoe. It was one thing not to be able to get in. But not get out? How could he have forgotten she was here? How could he have locked her in? She kicked the door again, harder, and a scuff mark appeared like a rebuke. – p. 57

Andi, utterly but quite rationally in love with Claire but completely deluded, wants to ensure that she won’t be able to leave him and so virtually keeps Claire locked in his apartment. He brings her gifts and does not harm her, hoping that Claire will soon warm to the idea and return his love once again. Like most lovers, Andi wants to save Claire:

‘Running away? What have I [Claire] ever run away from? You don’t know me at all!’

‘I’m just trying to help. I’m giving you a place just to be yourself. In the moment, not looking to the future. That’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it?’ He is doing this for her. Why can she not see that? – p. 97

Andi lives in an isolated apartment block and have taken away all forms of communication from Claire. Trapped, Claire eventually reforms a rather twisted relationship with Andi who wants nothing but Claire.

Berlin Syndrome is a really thrilling read and is the debut novel from a Melbourne writer. The prose is sparse but polished and, I found, very elegant. The small, claustrophobic cast was well drawn and in a rather bizarre sense, both Claire and Andi really complemented one another. They were really two lost souls and you felt for their loneliness and disconnectedness. I’m wondering if the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t want to put anybody off but if you liked Room by Emma Donoghue or Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, then you’ll probably like this too because it’s in a similar vein.

Review: “Greenbanks” by Dorothy Whipple [1932]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Persephone.

Beginning in 1909, Greenbanks is largely a poignant examination of the changing role of women but also a quiet family saga taking place during a critical period in history. The Ashton family reside in the estate Greenbanks. Louisa, a kindly and gentle housewife, is the matriarch and is happiest looking after and loving her children and grandchildren. Her husband, Richard, is a philanderer, which is an open secret within the family but Louisa turns a blind eye. Three of the grown Ashton children continue to live at Greenbanks while two of the girls are married. Letty has married Ambrose, the antithesis of her father, for his safety and stability and who is the mother of four children. The youngest at four years old, Rachel, is Louisa’s favourite grandchild and constant visitor at Greenbanks.

As events unfold, the Ashton women struggle to define or redefine their role and place. Letty, having married the stable but utterly boring and arrogant Ambrose, is stifled by her domestic and maternal duties:

‘Is there something wrong with me?’ she asked in alarm. ‘This is no more than other women have to put up with. Why don’t I like housekeeping?’

She thought of her mother who loved it, who snatched opportunities from every season: seville oranges for marmalade in January, strawberry, raspberry, plum as they appeared; who hailed the first spring cabbage with delight and presented early garden peas in triumph to her family; who used up unripe tomatoes in chutney and excess of mint in jelly for the winter mutton; who always had a pot of this or that to give to friends when they called … Her mother lived for and through other people, but Letty wanted something for herself. – p. 40

But Letty is committed to her place in life and the husband that she has chosen and she goes about her duties half-hearted waiting for the day when she can finally be free from her domestic duties. Letty is afraid of controversy and village gossip and Kate Barlow remains a constant warning to her.

Kate, a childhood schoolmate of the Ashton children, is a fallen woman who inadvertently returns to Greenbanks. As an orphan living with her grandfather, Louisa took pity on Kate and took Kate under her wings, trying to include her in activities Louisa’s own children participated in. Later as a teenager, at a dance Louisa chaperoned, Kate falls in love and has a short-lived fling with tragic circumstances, forcing Kate to leave the town in disgrace. Louisa bumps into Kate in London and after re-establishing a friendship with Kate, invites her to move to Greenbanks as Louisa’s companion to mixed opinions. Kate, however, remains suspicious of the society that has shunned her and who is resigned to repenting for her disgrace for the rest of her life.

Louisa herself is constantly changing and re-adjusting her role as her family grows and moves on, marries or simply become inaccessible. What is Louisa’s place after a lifetime spent as a Wife and Mother when she is no longer a wife and mother?

All her children had left her, she thought; died, married, gone to other places. All but one, now. It was one of life’s ironies that the only one left to her should be Jim, the one, she admitted, she could have best done without. They had all gone, but nothing in her life had been like this; this was a rending hole that nothing could fill again. – p. 79

Louisa’s relationship with her granddaughter Rachel is perhaps the most endearing and marks the contrast between two women from different generations. As the novel spans over sixteen very turbulent years, Rachel grows up in rapidly changing times and ideals. When selecting schools to send Rachel’s brothers, Ambrose muses that he:

intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. – p. 137

But Ambrose too is struggling to retain his place in society and as the patriarch of the family, acting only in a way that he has been bought up to know. Admittedly, his stubbornness prevents him from seeing the bigger picture or accepting an alternative perspective which is highlighted when a brilliant seventeen-year-old Rachel finally stands up to Ambrose:

‘Oxford – bah! Do you think the men want you there? Poking in, trying to ape men. I’ve no patience with these women intellectuals – lot of frumps!’

‘Good Lord, do you think I’m going to bother about whether the men want me there or not?’ cried Rachel. ‘And when have you seen any women intellectuals, Father? And aren’t men intellectuals ever frumps? These reasons for refusing a State Scholarship are all silly – positively silly.’ – p. 238.

These four women mark a period of mass transition  – both socially and historically. A world war transpires within the novel at some stage which stuns the world and Greenbanks.

This is such a wonderful and beautiful story and rather heartbreaking too for what once was. The heartwarming relationship between Louisa and Rachel bookends the generations and Rachel is such a feisty character. She says one of my most favourite lines I’ve ever come across in a novel:

‘… have you had lunch?’

‘Er – no,’ said John. ‘Will you come to Reece’s?’

‘I’d love to, but I must pay for myself, because I want to eat a lot.’ – p. 324

Now there’s honesty for you! Dorothy Whipple writes so eloquently and quietly. The passing of time is so seamless. Characters grow and age without you realising it and by the book’s end, sixteen years have lapsed. I have read only one other Whipple, Someone at a Distance, but I think I Greenbanks tops that. A wonderful and, at times, a desperately sad read.

Review: “East Lynne” by Ellen Wood [1860]

Spanning across nearly a decade, this sweeping Sensation novel charts the disgraceful downfall and eventual partial redemption of aristocrat Isabel Vane. Left impoverished after her father’s death and at the mercy of her cruel and spiteful aunt, the quiet and timid Isabel accepts the marriage proposal of Thomas Carlyle after they meet again. Mr Carlyle, a humble, albeit a successful and popular, lawyer had earlier purchased the Vanes estate, East Lynne. Isabel, with no other options, marries Mr. Carlyle believing that she will one day learn to love him. Isabel admires and likes Mr. Carlyle enough and he in turn is thoughtful, considerate and deeply in love with Isabel. Although Isabel had believed that coming back to her former home at East Lynne would bring her happiness, Isabel is lonely and dominated in her house by Mr. Carlyle’s older sister, Cornelia, who has moved in with them and leaving Isabel with no say in the running of the domestic. After the birth of their three children, Isabel’s health deteriorates and she is sent to recuperate at the seaside. Despite her pleas for her children to accompany her, Isabel is denied this by the doctor and Cornelia who admonishes her about the expenses.

“The children are not going to the sea-side,” said she [Cornelia]. “They are not ordered there.”

“But they must go with me,” replied Lady Isabel. “Of course they are not expressly ordered to it. Why should they not go?”

“What should they not?” retorted Miss Corny. “Why, on account of the expense, to be sure. I can tell you what it is, Lady Isabel, what with one expense and another, your husband will soon be on the the road to ruin. Your journey with Joyce and Peter will cost enough, ma’am, without taking a van-load of nurses and children.” – p. 209

Left alone at the seaside to recover her health, Isabel bumps into Captain Levison whom she had previously felt attracted to when they were acquainted in their youth. Despite having been warned by Isabel’s uncle that Captain Levison was a bad influence, Isabel can’t deny his allure. Frightened and confused, Isabel flees back to East Lynne but a series of coincidences have Mr. Carlyle invite Captain Levison to stay at East Lynne. While Mr. Carlyle becomes heavily involved in acquitting a falsely condemned man, the brother of a family friend, pretty Barbara Hare, Isabel grows jealous and is swayed under Captain Levison’s influence. One night, both Isabel and Captain Levison disappear.

The hand-writing, his wife’s, swam before the eyes of Mr Carlyle. All, save the disgraceful fact that she had flown – and a horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him with whom – was totally incomprehensible. How had he outrages her? in what manner had he goaded her to it? – p. 281

A year passes and Lady Isabel is hiding in France, deeply regretting having run away with Captain Levison who, as soon as he received what he wanted, treats Isabel badly and leaves her unmarried just as she is about to give birth to their child. Seeking repentance, and missing her other children dreadfully, Isabel begins her journey back to England when she is involved in an accident. Misidentified, the authorities notifies her uncle that Isabel has died and the news travels back to Mr. Carlyle who is now married to Barbara. Isabel, with her face and figure scarred, adopts a disguise and a new name and, again, through twisted coincidences is recommended as a governess to Mr. Carlyle’s family which includes his children with Barbara. And so Lady Isabel returns to East Lynne once more, this time under an eccentric disguise and a new name, Madame Vine, and as a stranger to her children in a house that was once hers.

I quite enjoyed this book, being a huge fan of Sensation fiction. This, along with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret makes up the core Sensation trilogy. Many of the plot lines were contrived but I quite enjoyed it. It’s like a Victorian soap opera. Isabel remained an elusive character though and while I didn’t despise her, I also didn’t quite warm to her although I did pity her and her tragic circumstances. Unlike other adulteresses in many other Victorian fiction, Isabel is not painted as a ‘scarlet woman’ but merely a woman who made one mistake that ultimately cost her everything.

Review: “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham [1957]

Something strange is happening to the quiet and closed off town of Midwich. Between the late evening of 26th September and the morning of 27th September, an unusual and unseen occurrence have encircled the boundaries of Midwich causing everybody within, and whoever crosses, the perimeter immediately lapse into unconsciousness. Once the phenomena, dubbed the Dayout, has been lifted, the townspeople goes back unharmed to their daily lives until a few months later where all women of childbearing age find themselves pregnant. The children borne are unsurprisingly unusual, not only in their identical looks, but it also becomes clear that these babies exert some unnatural influence over their mothers:

Mrs Brant had gone into Mrs Welt’s shop one morning to find her engaged in jabbing a pin into herself again and again, and weeping as she did it. This had not seemed good to Mrs Brant, so she had dragged her off to see Willers. He gave Mrs Welt some kind of sedative, and when she felt better she had explained that in changing the baby’s napkin she had pricked him with a pin. Whereupon, by her account, the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself. – p. 99

As the children grow, the the women find themselves detached from their children. The Children (now with a capital C) now also seem capable of rapid learning and have a form of unnatural intellectual connection with one another. When one of the boys or girls learn something, the entire gender group will suddenly also absorb the new knowledge. The Children grow rapidly and suddenly, they become a much larger threat than Midwich initially thought putting everybody at risk.

Despite its fascinating premise and storyline, I found this quite boring. Perhaps it’s just me, not being a sci-fi fan, but I found I just couldn’t connect with the characters and the writing sort of just plodded along and was rather dry. I kept losing track of which character was who. The first part started off quite well but then it just sort of withered down. Interesting but it was just a bit ‘blah’ for me unfortunately.

Review: “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear [2003]

I have been anticipating reading this series ever since I first heard about it from If You Can Read This and also from seeing its gorgeous covers floating around at work.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in the series starring…Maisie Dobbs! Set in 1929, Maisie is trying to establish herself as a private investigator in a country, and world, that is still haunted by the horror of WWI. As a single, young woman working in an unorthodox career, Maisie was always going to be a little unusual. Her first case brings her Christopher Davenham who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. To Davenham’s surprise, Maisie questions his intentions with any information Maisie will provide him about his wife:

“The information I gather will be presented in a context. It is in light of that context that we must continue our discussion, in order for you and your wife to build a future.”

“My job is rather more complex than you might have imagined, Mr Davenham. I am responsible for the safety of all parties. And this is so even when I am dealing with society’s more criminal elements.” – p. 14

Integrity and morality is what sets Maisie apart from the typical private investigator. She does eventually get to the bottom of Davenham’s wife’s regular, unexplained disappearances which is connected to the aftermath of the war, which in turn forces Maisie to remember her own past.

Born into a lowly, but well loved, family, Maisie is sent at the age of 13 to the Belgravia estate of Lady and Lord Compton to work as a maid. Harbouring a passion for reading and displaying deep intelligence, Maisie soon concocts a way to read her way through the Compton’s rich library undetected by sneaking up early in the morning before the household chores.

The feeling inside that [Maisie] experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body need is fuel. – p. 87

The secret visits to the library continued for some time before she is caught out by Lady Compton. This ultimately works out to Maisie’s advantage who demonstrates her intelligence and  becomes the Compton’s and their family friend, a highly regarded intellectual, Dr. Maurice Blanche’s protege. Life goes quite well for Maisie until the outbreak of the war where she eventually volunteers herself as a nurse and she is shipped to France.

The past and present becomes interconnected. To solve her case, Maisie must not only analyse the physical, but also the psychological, scars left by the war, horrors unforseen by anybody in the world.

Maisie Dobbs is a lovely first book and establishes the characters and setting. This is indeed somewhat a cozy crime fiction but the psychological examination of WWI and the surviving soldiers return to society gives it an edge. Maisie is an interesting character but I couldn’t help thinking some areas of her life were cliched and at times, she seemed a bit weak. However, I did thoroughly enjoy this first book and will seek out the other Maisie Dobbs books soon! And is it terrible of me to think that this would make the most lovely mini series?