The Witches Are Coming

48589607._sx318_The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (Website, Insta)

Genre: nonfiction/ essays

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Lindy West

Source: my own TBR

Length: 06:27:00 

Published by: Hachette Audio (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of feminism, mostly, with other topics such as white nationalism and climate change added as well. West is a terrific writer, making her arguments succinctly, pointedly, and with a lot of humor. I had not read any of her work before, nor have I watched Shrill on Hulu. So I don’t know how much of this collection is repetitive from anything she’s written previously, but it was all new to me. 

Well, the topics themselves were not new, and I’m not really sure West added any new points to them that haven’t already been said. But her own take on them was new for me, and I enjoyed her writing voice a great deal. 

She wrote about some things I’ve said for years, among which is we need to stop praising people, especially mediocre white men, for doing things normal adults are supposed to do anyway. You went to work! You do not get a ‘yay for you!’ for that. Adults are supposed to go to work. No, you cannot babysit your own children. Taking care of your own children is called parenting. Babysitting is what you pay the teenager across the street to do. Praising mediocre white men for doing things normal people are supposed to do is partly why we are stuck with Trump in the White House and his troglodyte followers in positions of power they are in no way qualified to hold. 

Also, stop talking about how charming and handsome Ted Bundy was. He murdered women and everyone is still hung up on how nice he was. No he fucking wasn’t! He liked to kill people. Murderers by definition are not nice. If it takes a while to catch them, it’s not because they are so nice or blend in so well with society, it’s because they snowed everyone around them and used their gullibility to get away, literally, with murder. That’s not charming, that is creepy.

Also, abortions are health care and modern day fucked up rape culture needs to stop. 

So yeah, I guess a lot of it is preaching to the choir and all, but I still think most of the essays included are excellent and this is yet another book that should be required reading.

 

 

The Power

29751398._sy475_The Power by Naomi Alderman (Website, Twitter)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: everywhere, possibly in the near future

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 341 pp

Published by: Viking (27 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

TL;DR version: girls are now born with the ability to conduct electricity (specifically, they can electrocute people) because of a weird skein under their collar bones, and the menz are scared shitless.

In an unspecified time which feels like the near future, girls are suddenly born with a ‘skein’ under their collar bones which allows them to electrocute people. They can turn on this ability in older women as well. The Power follows four young people through their initial discovery of these skeins and the ways in which they adapt to them. One is Roxy, a tough girl from London whose family is feared for running an organized crime operation. Allie/Mother Eve is an abused foster child from the east coast who takes the power from her skein to escape and set up a new life for herself. Jocelyn is the daughter of an up and coming political superstar in the midwest, and her skein seems to be broken. Tunde is an aimless young man from Nigeria who finds his path as a reporter. The ways each of their lives intermingle relay the genesis of the skeins and their impact upon all of human society.

First, things I liked.

If I had a skein that let me zap people, I can’t honestly say I would use it for good. I can think of a fair few men who could use a good electrocution. But you know? If (mainly white) men overall, and throughout history, weren’t such rapey, abusive dicks bent on systematic oppression of women and minorities (see plot line with Roxy’s brother and dad), I wouldn’t even think about what I could do with the ability to electrocute people. Do better, menz. 

I liked that the book touched on beneficial ways women could use their skeins. It was clear that some women were more skilled than others in how they could use their power – some could only use it to hurt, but others could use it to try to help or heal people. Some girls were skilled and powerful enough to awaken the power in older women who had not been born with a skein. Others healed the sick or injured. 

I thought it was interesting, though not at all surprising, to consider that religious exploitation was a thing regardless of whether it was women in charge or men. It seems that religion will always find a way to take advantage of people who are afraid or feel lost or whatever it is that makes them flock in their thousands to weird evangelical circus-like performances and throw their money at it. Faith healers are such a crock, whether in reality or in spec fic, and they prey upon people who are desperate in some way or other. And really, religion is a crock as well. Logic is better than magical thinking, and taking active steps to fix a problem in society is more effective than trying to pray it away. 

Also, I did like that this dystopian novel gave something to women rather than taking something away and exploring the fallout from that. In The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Clocks, women no longer have any reproductive rights. In The Unit, older people are sent to a nursing home type of setting to await the days when their organs will be needed for people who are considered young and relevant still. In Vox, women’s voices are taken away in that they are only permitted to speak 100 words a day. So many other examples portray a world in which something vital is taken away from women. So it is interesting to read a book where something is given to them for once. 

Now, things I didn’t care for.

The novel at times felt more like a research project than a book. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that power and authority in the world tends to come from the ability to hurt other people. Ask any woman and I can almost guarantee that she has at least once in her life been afraid of a man and what he would do to her. So kind of the whole premise, while an interesting thought experiment, it also doesn’t really ask any new or profound questions. It seems to be trying to answer questions that have been posed and explored forever in other speculative fiction novels, movies, TV shows… 

The book eventually got around to Men’s Rights movements. I found myself snorting at these scenes every time they came up. Of course, my reading is influenced by actual history and I couldn’t quite separate that from the book, which is no fault of Alderman’s. But a Men’s Rights movement was as ridiculous to me as a Straight Pride parade – do men think women’s rights are as preposterous as I felt the men’s rights were in this? Again, if the menfolk would quit trying to control and suppress everyone, there would be no need for men’s OR women’s rights movements. We could all just be equal. Which seems to scare men like Moscow Mitch absolutely shitless. 

The biggest drawback for me was that the plot and character development were really…not great. Most of the characters were flat, had little actual development, and I didn’t give a crap about any single one of them. Well, I kind of cared what happened to Jocelyn a little bit, and Tunde was an interesting perspective. But in general, even they were mostly static, and I don’t think the novel needed ALL of the POV characters to be POV characters. Most of them weren’t really all that interesting, or at least I didn’t think so. I think it would have been more interesting if the novel had been told from the POV of just one person. All the international politics and women going insane seemed like it was contrived and hard for Alderman to pull off convincingly. 

I actually quite liked this book and don’t mean to sound as if I didn’t, but I think it had a lot of problems.

Guest Post: The Book of Gutsy Women

The Book of Gutsy Women

The Book of Gutsy Women by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

Reviewed by Cathy Smith

Although I wanted to speak to my friend from 50 years ago, I was not looking forward to the phone call. I mostly did not want to speak with him because I knew the conversation would be pushed into opposing political views or religious views, regardless of how many times I would ask that we “not go there”. After much thought, I set my concerns aside, told my inside mind to be kind and stay nice, and returned my friend’s calls.

It started out well but less than three minutes into the call, he said (without taking a breath), “You live in Oregon. Right? My oldest son lived in Portland for a year. He hated it. He mostly didn’t like living there because he said people in Oregon let women speak their minds and what’s worse is that they listen to them…”

My inside mind lost all its filters, triggering my voice, and what followed was a five-hour conversation about women, their rights, and all the major political and religious issues facing the nation today. At the end of the phone call, which required both of us having to charge our phones in midstream, we were still friends (I think). He tried to convince me to go to the next class reunion, and I ended with a maybe. We hung up, and I returned to listening to The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.

The Book of Gutsy Women is more than just the biographies of some of the most courageous women in the world. It is about the issues faced by humanity in the past and in the present. The book discusses issues from all aspects of life and talks about how individual woman have had the courage to step out of their comfort zones to take a stand.

After finishing the book, the one fact that really stayed with me is the issue of women and their reproductive rights. When reading the chapter about Venus and Serena Williams, I learned that the maternal mortality rate is rising in the United States. According to Delbanco, Lehan, Montalvo, and Levin-Scherz (2019) “Over 700 women a year die of complications related to pregnancy each year in the United States, and two-thirds of those deaths are preventable” (para. 2).

The estimated maternal mortality rate (per 100,000 live births) for 48 states and Washington, DC (excluding California and Texas, analyzed separately) increased by 26.6%, from 18.8 in 2000 to 23.8 in 2014. California showed a declining trend, whereas Texas had a sudden increase in 2011-2012. (MacDorman, et al., 2016, p. 447)

This information is mind-boggling, especially as it relates to Serena Williams and why she needed to wear a specially designed catsuit during the French Open in 2018. Williams knew that she had several blood clots in both her lungs, and after giving birth to her daughter in 2017, she had a pulmonary embolism (Friedman, 2018). The catsuit was a compression suit that would prevent blood clots (Clinton, H. R, & Clinton, C., 2019). Unfortunately, Williams was told by the French Tennis Federation that she could not wear a black catsuit during a match. It is interesting how women have been and are regulated regarding the clothes they are expected to wear or not wear personally and professionally.

Unlike Williams, another athlete featured in The Book of Gutsy Women is Ibtihaj Muhammad who chose fencing as a sport because “fencers wear full-body suits and masks, the uniforms wouldn’t need to be altered” (Clinton & Clinton, 2019, Chapter Athletes, Section Ibtihaj Muhammad, para. 1). Although what Muhammad wore was not an issue for the sport she excelled in, many tried to use her religious and personal beliefs to dissuade her from following through with her dreams and her goals. Throughout her career, Muhammad was told she could not succeed because she was a Muslim woman and even received life threats. None of this has stopped this gutsy woman.

Living in harm’s way, being threatened and abused, and being the victims of bullying is not uncommon for gutsy women. The Book of Gutsy Women shares the short bios of women that have advocated for education, the environment, and politics. The Clintons share stories about activists, writers, and women groundbreakers. Each bio provides readers and listeners with insightful information about the lives and work of some of the most remarkable women who have changed and are changing the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs. Although fiction, the book inspired me to learn more about Harriet Tubman, so when Tubman was the first gutsy woman that the Clintons wrote about, I was hooked. As I read about and listened to each story, I discovered tidbits of information that I, as a woman, could relate to. For example, when reading about Margaret Bourke-White, I found a new hero in my life. She is known as a fearless photojournalist for Life magazine and the first female war correspondent (Clinton & Clinton, 2019). Throughout my younger years, my dream job was to be a writer and a war correspondent, much to my parents’ dismay. Of course, this did not happen since my Dad’s dying wish was that I finish college and become a teacher.

As it turned out, teaching was a perfect career for me, especially since I was able to work with multicultural and bilingual education, reading, and writing. My first teaching positions were with Migrant education. The stories and the journeys of migrant children and families were both heart-wrenching and inspirational. Before working in migrant education, I previously worked as a migrant farm worker and was aware of the work done by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers so when I read and listened to the Clintons’ bio of Dolores Huerta, I continued to embrace their book. In the 1940s, Huerta completed college and became a teacher, and soon after starting her teaching career, she discovered her purpose in life (Clinton & Clinton, 2019). Huerta (as cited in Clinton & Clinton, 2016) stated, “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes” and continued to say, “I thought I could do more by organizing farmworkers than by trying to teach their hungry children” (Chapter Advocates and Activists Section Dolores Huerta para. 4). Huerta worked side by side with Cesar Chavez to cofound the United Farm Workers.

The stories of the amazing women in The Book of Gutsy Women are all unique and inspiring. Many of the women featured were my personal heroes growing up, and others are new heroes who now give me the courage to step outside of my comfort zone to do more work for the different communities that I have come to call my own. The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton is a book that I recommend everyone read. In fact, I sent a print copy to my daughter and granddaughter so they will realize that it is important for all women to find their voice and share their passions with the world.

References

Clinton, H. R. & Clinton, C. (2019). The Book of Gutsy Women [Kindle Fire 10 version] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Delbanco, S., Lehan, M. Montalvo, T., and Levin-Scherz, J. (2019) The rising U.S. material mortality rate demands action from employers. Harvard Law Review. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://hbr.org/2019/06/the-rising-u-s-maternal-mortality-rate-demands-action-from-employers

Friedman, M. (2018) French Open bans Serena Williams from wearing her life-saving catsuit -Even though it helped her with a major health issue. Elle. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a22826732/serena-williams-catsuit-french-open-dress-code/

MacDorman, M.F., Declercq, E. Cabral, H. & Morton, C. (2016). Recent increases in the U.S. maternal mortality rate: Disentangling trends from measurement issues. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 128(3), 447–455. https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000001556

 

 

 

 

 

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

Fig Tree in Winter

38465750._sy475_Fig Tree in Winter  by Anne Graue (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: poetry

I read it as a: paperback chapbook

Source: my own collection

Length: 36 pp

Published by: dancing girl press (2017)

As part of the 2019 Read Harder challenge, I chose this book to complete the task for ‘read a collection of poetry published since 2014.’ I am the first to confess that I rarely read poetry and I am often confounded by it. However, in the interests of full disclosure, Anne is a friend of mine so it felt natural to want to use her book to complete this task; friendship aside, though, I find her poems to be beautifully feminine and strong as well as challenging. 

Anne was the person who taught me what found poetry is. I was delighted to learn this, because it was something I had done for ages and ages, from childhood, and just didn’t know there was a real name for it. I find it to be a really stunning form of art and would like to learn more about it, maybe even try some of my own, just for a new thing to hang on my library wall if nothing else.

I don’t really know how to review poetry. I think that this collection, though, has a strong theme of feminism and lost innocence to it. Many of the poems evoke feelings of nostalgia for our younger selves, for wishing we had known then what we know now, and more than a little disappointment and heartbreak at the way things turn out in the end. My favorite poems in the collection are ‘A World Divided’, ‘the asylum’, and ‘The Cure for Thinking’. These, to me, sum up so much of a woman’s experience that it is a little shocking to find in such a few brief lines.

A Feather on the Breath of God

hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns
Hildegard and her nuns

In the year 1112, a young girl who had been given to the church by her parents as a tithe was entombed in an anchorite’s cell with another woman, Jutta. The mass of the dead was performed over the enclosed cell, as was customary, and the girl became an anchoress until her eventual release in 1136 upon Jutta’s death. The girl, now around 38 years old, was then unanimously declared as the next abbess of the Disenbodenberg convent. She went on to become a renowned theologian, composer, and mystic. The girl was Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 Sept 1179), medieval firebrand, visionary, thorn in the side of her male contemporaries, and she remains as relevant today as she was in her own time.

Hildegard was a product of her time and was not a feminist by any modern definition of the word, but she was a fierce advocate of the sacred value of women. Her theology was feminine, focusing largely on the idea of God as a cosmic egg, a womb that nurtures all things. She acknowledged the dogma of her time, which decreed that God was male, but she claimed that she was unable to bear looking upon the divine in her visions unless it presented as female. Although women were prohibited from preaching, nevertheless, she persisted, going on several tours to preach to her male superiors about the sins of the Church, which was rife with sexual misconduct and corruption. One of Hildegard’s more interesting visions, Ecclesia, depicts the Church giving birth to the Antichrist because of the venality of its clergy. She was not afraid of confrontation, and even wrote scathing letters to Pope Anastasius IV about the sad state of his Church:

You are neglecting justice, the King’s daughter [the Church], the heavenly bride, the woman who was entrusted to you. And you are even tolerant that this princess be hurled to the ground. Her crown and jeweled raiment are torn to pieces through the moral crudeness of men who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night. They are hypocrites. (Fox, 1987, p. 274)

At one point, Hildegard and her nuns were even placed under interdict for refusing to comply with orders to disinter a suspected apostate, whom Hildegard allowed to be buried in hallowed ground in her convent. Hildegard refused to relent and eventually the interdict was lifted. She could, and did, go toe to toe with male authority, and bravely fought for her beliefs within the system that was available to her.

Hildegard was also a gifted composer of music, another realm generally designated for men only. Because she was a Benedictine nun and adhered to that order’s strict daily schedule, she sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that singing was the highest form of prayer and music connected humankind directly to the divine. During her interdict, she was prohibited from singing, which was the harshest punishment for her. Hildegard said in a letter to the prelates of Mainz that “the soul is arises from heavenly harmony” (Fox, 1987, p. 359) and in music she referred to herself as a feather on the breath of God. She wrote over 70 songs and Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes considered to be the first opera. A sampling of her songs may be found at the following sites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY or http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen

Her mystical visions still bring inspiration. Often, they reflect her concept of Viriditas, the greening power, which she believed was the divine made manifest in everything on earth. She wrote, “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life” (Fox, 1987, p. 8-10). Hildegard felt the creation of all things reflected the face of the divine and that nature was sacred, something that is “highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats” (Sharratt, 2012, para. 6).

Hildegard’s death on September 17, 1179 marks a date of commemoration for this woman, a medieval mystic, visionary, healer, and saint. She was ordained a Doctor of the Church 900 years after her death. Today, women the world over still find solace and strength in her words and songs. We can use her for guidance to find our own viriditas, strength, and sacredness in nature, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

References

Classical Music goturhjem2. (2013, Feb 13). Hildegard von Bingen – Music and Visions [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY.

Hildegard of Bingen. (1987). Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. Matthew Fox (Ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.  

Hildegard von Bingen. (n.d.). Slacker Radio. Retrieved from http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen.

Newman, B. (1987). Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sharratt, M. (2012, Oct 27). 8 Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-sharratt/8-reasons-why-hildegard-matters-now_b_2006626.html.

The Heart and Stomach of a King

330px-elizabeth_i_in_coronation_robes
Elizabeth I in her Coronation Robes

The Virgin Queen. Good Queen Bess. Gloriana. By whatever name one called her, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, granddaughter of the indomitable Elizabeth of York, was no woman to be trifled with. On September 7, we mark the 484th anniversary of her birth and the beginning of a long, tumultuous, vibrant life. Her reign is known as the Golden Age of England, during which time writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Spenser crafted their literary masterpieces; artists like Hilliard, Gower, and Segar painted portraits still recognized the world over; and the music of Tallis, Dowland, and Campion echoed in cathedrals and town squares alike. Elizabeth was quite possibly the apex of the British monarchy, but there are several things not commonly known about this Renaissance powerhouse.

Elizabeth may have been more traumatized by her mother’s execution than she could risk admitting to. She grew up hearing her mother called “The Great Whore,” who was beheaded by her father, Henry VIII, on false accusations of treason and adultery, before Elizabeth was three. However, there are signs that Elizabeth was secretly devoted to her lost mother in ways she couldn’t express openly. A locket ring was removed from her hand after her death which held a miniature of Anne. In a family portrait, she also wore a necklace with her mother’s “A” at her throat, an act which would have landed her in quite a lot of trouble had her father noticed it. At various times of her youth, she was a princess, declared a bastard and removed from the line of succession, reinstated, a political prisoner held in the Tower, and survived sexual scandal that led, in part, to the execution of Sir Thomas Seymour. All without a mother to comfort her.

Her difficult childhood tempered her, though, and her humanist education honed her already keen intelligence. Elizabeth was a polyglot, fluent in six languages by the time she was 11 years old – French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Welsh and of course English. She also studied others and had a functional understanding of Flemish, Italian, and Gaelic. She learned Gaelic as part of her diplomatic attempts to subdue an Irish rebellion in the 1590s. Diplomacy and oration were great strengths for Elizabeth. She often used flirtation and flattery in her diplomacy to goad her male contemporaries into granting her political wishes. England was in dire straits when she came to the throne and she was pressured on many fronts to marry to secure various alliances and produce an heir, yet Elizabeth remained steadfastly unwed while still maintaining good relations with the majority of Europe throughout her reign. In a 1559 speech to Parliament, she said,

…I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that may suffice you. And this… makes me wonder that you forget, yourselves, the pledge of this alliance which I have made with my kingdom. … And reproach me so no more … that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks…. (Elizabeth I, 2000, p. 59)

Remaining unwed and fully in control of her government during a time in which women were most often used as bargaining chips, means to getting heirs, securing alliances, and bettering one’s social standing was a testament to Elizabeth’s strength of will and shrewd political acumen.

Another pressing issue of her reign was poverty. Elizabeth created the Act for the Relief of the Poor in 1597, which was the first fully comprehensive bill for poverty relief. It was later amended by the Elizabethan Poor Act of 1601, which remained unchanged until the mid-1800s. The Elizabethan Poor Act essentially taxed the wealthier citizens of the country to provide food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, generally within their own communities. People who were unable to work, such as the very young, the elderly, or the mentally or physically disabled, were cared for in an almshouse or poorhouse. People who could work were sent to “houses of industry.” These were the precursors to the infamous Victorian workhouses, but in Elizabeth’s time, they were a vast improvement over being labeled a vagrant, a hanging offence. Children who were old enough to work were made apprentices in various trades. People who were too lazy to work, though, were on their own and would either have to decide to work or would eventually wind up in prison or be hanged as a persistent beggar, as the term was known under the Vagrancy Act of 1547 (Rathbone, 2017). Elizabeth instituted what were, for the time, sweeping reforms for the care of the poor.

Elizabeth may be best known for reigning during the time of Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, and the like, but her own contributions to her country and culture cannot be overlooked. She was the woman who was never meant to be Queen but who became one of the most beloved monarchs of the British monarchy. She was the woman who roused her troops with speeches worthy of the gods. Gloriana.

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The Darnley Portrait

Elizabeth I. (2000). Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Leah S. Marcus (Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rathbone, Mark. “Vagabond!” History Review. March 2005, Issue 51, p. 8-13.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

40135122The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: A Novel* by Nadia Hashimi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Gin Hammond

Source: my own collection

Length: 16:10:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2014

The Pearl The Broke Its Shell is a dual timeline narrative told mostly from the perspective of Rahima, a young woman living near Kabul in 2007. She and her sisters are the children of an opium-addicted father and, with no brothers to help the family, their prospects for improving their life or marriage prospects are grim. Their rebellious aunt, Shaima, suggests that Rahima follow an old custom called the bacha posh, which not only sounds like Klingon the way the narrator pronounced it, but it the tradition of allowing a girl to dress and act as a boy when there are no other boys in a family. She can go to school, run errands for her mother, and chaperone her other sisters. In this way, Rahima becomes Rahim and becomes a boy until she reaches marriageable age and her father marries her and her two other eldest sisters off. By marriageable, I mean she was 13.

The tradition of bacha posh was not unique to Rahima’s family. She had a many-times-great grandmother, Shekiba, who had lived as a man near the turn of the century as well. The secondary timeline follows her story from her small village and farmstead, through the cholera epidemic that wiped out her entire family, and how she lived as a man in order to survive.

This was such a thought provoking novel. Though fiction, it deals with issues which happened in real life and which are still highly relevant today – child marriage, honor killing, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and many other issues. Any one of these things is enough to break a person, but underneath all this is woven the strength of women. Rahima and Shekiba, as well as the other women throughout the book, all suffer hardships, sacrifices, abuses, and losses that are unimaginable. Some, like Rahima’s sister Parwin, are overcome. But others, like Rahima and Shekiba themselves, keep fighting even when they think they’ve come to the end of their strength and can’t go any further or endure anything else life could possibly throw at them. In the end, Shekiba’s story becomes a source of strength for Rahima, and Rahima becomes the pearl that breaks her shell.

I loved the use of bird imagery as well throughout the book. Parwin was fond of drawing birds, there were birds singing and fluttering about in many pivotal scenes. Birds have some significant parts in Islamic culture, from the “Miracle of the Birds” when Abyssinian forces were supposedly annihilated by birds dropping pebbles from the sky to prevent them from entering Mecca and destroying the Ka’bah, to stories found in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights to works by Sufi poets and Islamic mystics. Including the bird imagery elevates the narratives of the women and equates them to many of the mystics or saints from other cultures in some ways, those who were made holy through their suffering, like medieval saints. I am not sure if that is intentional or not, but the image is there all the same.

This mystic thread continues in the book’s title, which is derived from the ecstatic poem “There Is Some Kiss We Want” by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. It is a lovely poem:

There is some kiss we want

with our whole lives,

the touch of spirit on the body.

 

Seawater begs the pearl

to break its shell.

 

And the lily, how passionately

it needs some wild darling.

 

At night, I open the window

and ask the moon to come

and press its face against mine.

Breathe into me.

 

Close the language-door

and open the love-window.

 

The moon won’t use the door,

only the window.

Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
author-photo
Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

In the Shadow of the Enemy

42070912In the Shadow of the Enemy (A Christine de Pizan Mystery) by Tania Bayard

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

In late-14th century France, Charles VI “the Mad,” rules. Probably a lot of people would like for France not to be ruled by a guy who is off his rocker, including his brother, the Duke of Orleans. Then, at a masquerade ball, the king and several of his friends decide to cause some mayhem and dress up like wildmen. To do so, they stick fur and leaves to themselves using pitch. This turns out to be a spectacularly bad idea, because a spark, presumably from the Duke of Orleans’s torch, catches on one of their outfits, causing four of the men to burn to death and the king to narrowly escape the same fate. Everyone suspects the Duke. However, some other people attending, including Christine de Pizan (yes, that Christine de Pizan) see something others didn’t – another torch, which was thrown from a spot far away from the Duke’s location. He still had both of his torches and yet there was a third torch on the floor, in the middle of the burning men. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, asks Christine to find out who wants the king dead, for she is certain that he was the target of an attempted assassination. Aided by a colorful array of sidekicks, including a prostitute who actually makes her living at embroidery, a dwarf who works for the Queen, and a deaf girl who takes care of the King’s lions, Christine undertakes an investigation. It leads her from the twisted politics of the court, to various potential targets and culprits with different reasons to want the victims dead, and straight into the sights of a killer.

In the Shadow of the Enemy is actually the second in the Christine de Pizan series, but it was the first one I’ve read. That made no difference to my utter enjoyment of the book, though, as this story is a standalone. The first book was referenced enough that it filled in any gaps there might have been, sometimes a little too thoroughly – there are totally spoilers for the first book, so I didn’t think that was very well done at all. I’m still going to read the first book, though, and just hope that I’ve forgotten what the spoilers are by the time I actually get around to it.

I adore the fact that Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics), is the protagonist here. I love it when real women from history are the stars in literature interesting new ways. She is a complex character, and all the secondary characters are multifaceted as well. Marion the prostitute was my second favorite, with her big personality and capacity for warmth and generosity and her inexplicable reluctance to tell people she isn’t actually a prostitute anymore. Christine’s mother, Francesca, was also a fun, minor addition. She reminds me of my grandmother in a lot of ways. The one thing I thought was weird was Klara’s utter and sudden change of heart regarding her husband Martin and her views on her brother, Willem. Those both seemed too convenient for me, but in the scheme of things, I can overlook this minor quibble.

The mix of medieval attitudes towards people, including those deemed “defective”, such as dwarves or deaf people, and even towards Christine herself, is so realistic. People thought Loyse, the deaf girl, had demons because they didn’t understand that she acted as she did simply because she couldn’t hear or understand others. The dwarf, Alips, was viewed with deep suspicion and hatred because it was thought that dwarves bring bad luck, or that the way they look on the outside reflected a corrupt soul.  And, of course, women were viewed as second class citizens and were treated as such. So much religious bullshit. The research that clearly went into the novel is apparent and appreciated. The imagery brings to life medieval France in an immediate way, from the descriptions of the court and its kitchens and gardens to the streets and their various inhabitants. The plot was pleasingly complex and included a lot of history about French warfare, or at least one battle in particular. Overall, this was a fast, fairly light read and I happily recommend it. I even went to the library and got the first one in the series. I’ll read a few other books before I read that one, though, to see if I forget the spoilers for it that were in this book. Hmph.

*This is a much longer and more detailed review of the one which was originally published by the Historical Novel Society.