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884 / Gloria Steinem - My Life on the Road

Rather than being a tell-all autobiography, My Life on the Road is a set of memoirs linked around the theme of travel. Gloria Steinem's career has taken her all over the world and brought her into contact (and sometimes conflict) with any number of notable figures from politics and the feminist movement: Betty Friedan, Wilma Mankiller, Hillary Clinton, Florynce Kennedy. The tone is warm but sometimes disjointed. There were some anecdotes that I wished Steinem would linger over, tease out some more; some that didn't seem of a piece with the rest of the text. I was fascinated to learn about the National Women's Conference, which took place in Houston in 1977 and which Steinem calls "the most important event nobody knows about", and which seems to have been an intersectional gathering avant la lettre.

Steinem is right to quote Native American scholar Paula Gunn Allen, who wrote that "the root of oppression is the loss of memory" (226)—that when women and other oppressed groups do not have a knowledge of their own past it is more difficult to dismantle contemporary systems of oppression. I'm in agreement with a lot of what Steinem says about the necessity to recover older rhythms of living with the Earth, for more people to be aware that the Western gender binary is not the only way for people to relate to their bodies.

And yet I also found myself frustrated at several points with the way in which Steinem uses history to make her point. Correlation is not causation. The political system of the United States is not directly modelled on the egalitarian democracy of the Iroquois Confederacy. Not all pre-modern forms of political organisation in Europe were hierarchical or feudal—how else could Iceland have a parliament as old as it does?—and Steinem's claims erase with a stroke of a pen the powerful (and sometimes non-Christian) women of medieval Europe. There were not eight million women burnt at the stake for witchcraft and practice pre-Christian traditions in the Middle Ages (no footnote for that eyebrow-raising number), and nor is the layout of a Catholic church an echo of female genitalia ("a vaginal aisle up the center of the church to the altar (the womb) with two curved (ovarian) structures on either side" (207)) in anything other than a manner so general that the same could be said of almost any building you care to mention.

Women can find ourselves in the past without having to resort to myth-making of our own.

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883 / M.K. Hobson - The Hidden Goddess

It's been several years since I read the first book in this series, The Native Star, so the previous adventures of Emily Edwards and Dreadnought Stanton were far from fresh in my mind when I began The Hidden Goddess. Still, this novel almost stood alone and I could pick up the threads again without too much difficulty. M.K. Hobson has a knack for writing page turners, even when as in The Hidden Goddess the pacing is all off and the characters repeatedly fail to talk to one another in a manner that I normally find quite frustrating.

Emily is still a great main character: sympathetic, trying to do the right thing, but sometimes overwhelmed or making poor or selfish choices because she's running on limited information. Her relationship with Dreadnought Stanton was at once realistically drawn (falling in love and getting engaged is not the end point of a relationship) and deeply frustrating (the too-crowded final section of the book brings some revelations about Stanton's past that... well, if I were Emily, I'd have dumped him.)

One of the bigger flaws I remember from the first book is that the Native American characters featured seemed to be there solely to sacrifice themselves for white people. In this book, the big bad is the Aztec goddess Itztlacoliuhqui (who, I discovered when I googled, is actually a god in the Aztec pantheon, and whose gender swap appears to have been in the service of one of the more frustrating reveals at the end of the book), who is all savage blood lust and destructive urges, who is confined to a temple in Mexico that's strewn with dismembered body parts, and who is described as "dumb as a bag of hammers." Everyone who serves this goddess and actually does something to move her plans forward? A white American. Yeesh.

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In the late nineteenth-century, a bunch of white folks in Minnesota found a stone covered in incised runes which purported to be an artefact left behind by Vikings in the fourteenth century. It was an obvious and poor forgery. Yet many people in the area—then and now—were convinced that a group of Swedes made it to the area almost two hundred years before Christopher Columbus set sail. David Krueger lays out a pretty convincing case as to why people have latched onto it over the years: a mix of ethno-nationalism, Christian sectarianism, implicit belief in white supremacy, a desire for economic gain, racism against Native Americans, and the American predilection towards civic religion. Krueger very tactfully refrains from definitively calling the stone a laughable forgery—perhaps because the book is published by the University of Minnesota Press and he didn't want to alienate a potential purchasing demographic—but the weight of the evidence that he lays out is undeniable.

Overall, it's a quick and entertaining read (I laughed out loud at the mention of the woman who believed that she could use the power of faith to find secret acrostics and cyphers within the inscription, one of which spelled out... gopher, and thus we know that there definitely were Vikings in Minnesota, QED!), though the book could have done with another couple of editorial passes to make its origins as a doctoral dissertation less apparent. In a history book that's clearly intended to be a crossover with the field of pop culture studies and aimed at a more mass market audience, the references to Durkheim's theories should be kept to a minimum.

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This survey of the history of Jewish women in the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1300) packs a lot into just under 300 pages, and seems a good (if dense) introduction to the subject. I would imagine it heavy going for non-medievalists, however; I struggled enough as someone who doesn't know Hebrew. Grossman does quite a bit with comparative history, looking at these women in parallel with their Christian contemporaries (a reminder to me that I could stand to do a bit more of this in my own writing), though I quibble a bit with his interpretation of some of the historiography there.

This may in part be down to issues of translation from Hebrew. There were some word choices that didn't seem like quite the English word intended, and Grossman used words like 'permissive' and 'conservative' with regards to sexuality/sexual practices in ways that he never defined but which seemed problematic. But there were also some statements which Grossman made that I thought flat-out wrong, little as I know about Jewish history—chief among those the idea that instances of rape are lower when men have access to brothels. This is not true, and is also built on the nasty presumption that prostitutes can't be raped.

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A really nice, readable translation, as you would expect from a writer of Heaney's calibre—it's easy to imagine yourself in wood-smoke-filled meadhall as you read, and to imagine Heaney reading aloud to you in his gravelly, measured tones. Heaney brings an understanding of orality to his writing which was a wonderful and continual reminder to me as I read that the sole manuscript which survives to us (and which does not claim the title Beowulf for this tale) was but one iteration of an epic that no doubt twisted and changed depending on who recited it and when. I've seen some reviewers complain that this translation is not absolutely faithful to the Old English. While I do have some sympathies for that viewpoint, when it comes to a text like this I am more of a mind to view Heaney as but the latest generation of a scop, sitting down to tell us the tale as he remembers it—as it matters to him.

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I liked this one a lot less than the first installment, and this is where I'm going to bow out of the series. It's a quick read and K.J. Charles makes a genuine attempt at coming up with an off-the-beaten-path plot, but it's clear that her kinks are not mine. Being reminded within the first few pages of A Case of Possession that Stephen was "twenty-nine years old to Crane’s thirty-seven and looked closer to twenty, and [...] stood a clear fifteen inches shorter than Crane’s towering six foot three" does nothing for me. The way that Crane is crudely dominant in gendered ways was the opposite of a turn-on for me. Stephen liking to be submissive in the bedroom? Fine. Crane referring to him as a "little witch" in those moments? Well, that rather works to undercut the deliberate inclusion of Strong Female Characters (capitalisation intentional) elsewhere in the book.

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878 / K.J. Charles - The Magpie Lord

This is one of those frustrating books that's so close to being genuinely fantastic, and has so much potential, but which unfortunately seems not to have passed under the eye of a thoughtful editor before publication. K.J. Charles' conjures up a genuinely imaginative and engaging magical world which feels quite lived in and as if it exists beyond the boundaries of the book; the dialogue sometimes gets a little too arch but is often genuinely funny; and her characters are distinctly drawn, both the protagonists and the side characters (and I desperately want to meet Esther, the badass Jewish magic practitioner!).

However, these aspects of the book must be ranged against the fact that Charles sometimes falls back on expository chunks rather than more fluid reveals; the choppy changes of POV were sometimes disorienting; and Charles seemed to have much less of a grip on the social realities of mid-nineteenth-century England (I think? There are trains and I think an oblique reference to the Opium Wars, so I'm guessing 1860s) and some of the dialogue was a bit too anachronistic for my taste. These didn't stop me from speeding through the novel wanting to know what happens next, but they were minor road blocks along the way.

A bigger one was the relationship between the main characters, Lucien and Stephen. I enjoyed them as individual characters, but I don't yet quite buy that they're a couple. The author seems to think that describing one guy as older, well over six feet, and a top and the other guy as younger, barely five feet tall, and a bottom is the equivalent of real relationship development. Size/age difference not being something I find inherently attractive, I mostly felt uncomfortable during the sex scene and embarrassed by what Lucien thinks dirty talk is.

I'll probably try the sequels, and hope that they're a little more developed than The Magpie Lord.

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877 / Peter Frankopan - The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads is part of the genre of popular history books that purports to tell the history of the world through one particular theme or from one particular vantage point, and is better than most of them. Peter Frankopan is a trained historian, and so knows how to synthesise a great deal of information from cultures across Asia and Europe and the span of several centuries in a nuanced manner. As an example of a sweeping chronicle, there's much to admire here. The author knows how to keep a narrative moving at a brisk pace and when to throw in the occasional wry aside, which also helps the reader to move quickly through such a thick book. Frankopan's main point—that central Asia is far more central to world history than is popularly thought or than most Western textbooks teach—is well-made, if not exactly new. I found the early chapters of this book particularly engrossing, as Frankopan—a Byzantinist—is clearly most at home in those centuries.

Sadly, as the book progressed, I got a little more dissatisfied with it. Once the European Age of Exploration begins, the focus shifts so that we get more of a sense of how imperialist powers used Asia to fight their battles than anything else. This is, of course, an important story, and I learned some new things about British, French, and Russian involvement in Iran and Iraq to appal and depress me. But what I didn't get much of a sense of was the voices of those who lived in those regions and the reactions which they had to the forces swirling around their homes. Nor did I get a sense of the interactions between central Asia and the world to the south and east of it. There's little about China and nothing about, say, the Swahili coast. This serves to subtly, and I am sure unintentionally, reinforce the idea that the history of central Asia is important inasmuch as it helps to contextualise things that happened in the West. This may well be a function of the secondary scholarship on which Frankopan is drawing as he moves further and further from his areas of expertise, but it's a shame.

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Really a three-and-a-half star collection; it suffers from the problem endemic to many scholarly essay collections, in that when they're good they're very very good and when they're bad, they're... you get the idea. Some of these are a bit too wonky and field-specific to be broadly useful; others suffer from being written by a non-native English speaker; none of them are really suited to orienting absolute neophytes in the area of digital humanities. However, the best of the essays here do provide both a broad overview of some of the newest projects and approaches in the field, as well as providing vocabulary and methodology which can be used to encourage new scholars to dip their toes into DH.

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875 / Roxane Gay - Bad Feminist: Essays

Given the title, Bad Feminist has understandably been marketed as a collection of essays on feminism and gender. It isn't. It's a grab-bag of various essays, blog posts, and online columns which Gay has written on a variety of topics—some of them to do with feminism—gathered together in print format and without any evident subsequent editing to make the essays cohere with one another.

A couple of them are interesting; some of them I found frustrating (her take on trigger warnings, for instance, which was like a topic lesson in constructing a straw men); and others, like the one about competitive Scrabble tournaments, completely pointless. (I mean, there's a time and place for an insight into the world of competitive Scrabble tournaments, I'm sure, but I don't think that a book called Bad Feminist is it.) I might have forgiven some of this if it felt like I was challenged or pushed by what Gay wrote, if she'd taken on the challenge of such a provocative title—but ultimately there's nothing here that I hadn't already encountered.

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