Review: What Would Boudicca Do?

Do I really need yet another book on women’s history?  I’ve got a whole shelf sagging full of them at home; from Hypatia to Mary Queen of Scots, you name it, I’ve probably got it.  So do I really need yet another one?  Yes.  Yes I do.  Always.  Because just when I think I’ve read about every Warrior Queen and babein brainbox from the annals, I pick up another book and discover ten, twenty, thirty more inspiring women that I’ve never heard about.  Where the hell were these women when I was growing up?  How come school history lessons are still centered around great men and their great deeds?  How the hecky-pecky did I go thirty two years without knowing about Hedy Lamarr?

Thank God Women’s History is having a moment, and long may it reign – because as it turns out, no matter how clued up you think you are about it, there are still so many great women and their great deeds (and misdeeds 😉 ) to read about.  Which is why books like What Would Boudicca Do? are a great way of clueing yourself in on a whole handful of history’s most remarkable women rather than digesting one big brick of a biography at a time (which I’d totally recommend doing once you’ve found your historical soul sister 😉 ).

What’s unique about Foley and Coats‘ book is that you can flick through and pair up your modern day problems with a historical woman and be inspired by the way they overcame something similar.  Read how Mae West stayed body positive, how Akiko Yosano learned to love her boobs, how Catherine the Great dealt with the whole of Europe gossiping about her, and how Emily Dickinson defied FOMO.  Short and snappy chapters with beautiful illustrations, it’d make a great gift for someone who’s just got the Women’s History bug and wants to find out more.

Five other feminist books on my wishlist this Christmas…

1. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman

“You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who flaunts it, who’s too brazen, too opinionated – too much. Sometimes, she’s the life of the party; others, she’s the focus of gossip. She’s the unruly woman, and she’s one of the most provocative, powerful forms of womanhood today.”

I really fancy this one!  Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen analyses eleven modern pop culture powerhouses like Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and Hillary Clinton and looks at why we love to love them – or hate them for being too something.

2. What Would the Spice Girls Do?: How The Girl Power Generation Grew Up

“The Spice Girls gave a generation their first glimpse of the power of friendship, of staying true to yourself, of sheer bloody-mindedness. And the girl power generation went on to kick-start a new conversation around gender equality.”

If you grew up dancing to Wannabe on the playground like I did and still know the words to 2 become 1 (my husband shocked me the other night by repeating them word for word – proof positive that The Spice Girls really did rock a whole generation), then you’ll be just as eager to read this one as I am – especially ahead of their tour!  One of the reviewers over on Amazon calls it “a love story to the girls we were and the women we are” and I love that.

3. Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses your History Teacher Forgot to Mention

“For hundreds of years we have heard about the great men of history, but what about herstory?  In this freewheeling history of modern Britain, Cathy Newman writes about the pioneering women who defied the odds to make careers for themselves and alter the course of modern history.”

Another collection of inspiring tales about badass babes from history, but this time a whole book of badass British babes like Marie Stopes, Beatrice Shilling and Anne McLaren.  Yes please!

4. Life Honestly: Strong Opinions from Smart Women

“Life Honestly is a complete guide to modern life from some of today’s most talented and insightful writers including Bryony Gordon, Dolly Alderton, Natasha Devon, Lauren Laverne and Yomi Adegoke.”

If trawling The Pool is part of your every day online routine then this is right up your street.  A book full of inspiring, smart articles with fresh points of view on every day issues from motherhood to relationships.

5. Becoming: Michelle Obama

“In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her – from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.”

Yes!  Love her!  I was flicking through a magazine the other day and found an interview with Oprah that Michelle did to promote her book and after reading a little anecdote about her first night alone post-White House and how she made herself some cheese on toast and just enjoyed sitting on the porch with her dogs I knew I wanted to read it.

Happy weekend!  (…and happy Christmas shopping!)

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Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Being a Dick

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Not long after I moved back to Cardiff and into my house, the Jehovahs came knocking.  Two tiny, very sweet old ladies rang my doorbell whilst I was in the middle of emptying boxes and – caught up in the excitement of someone ringing my brand new doorbell – I rushed downstairs and opened the door.  I inwardly groaned as soon as they held out The Watchtower leaflet.  I wasn’t interested.  I didn’t have the time to discuss whether suffering is a punishment from God.  The only suffering I was interested in was the stacks of boxes upstairs that STILL needed emptying and where the hell I was going to put(/hide) Sunny’s stupid, ugly alligator head that had somehow survived the move from London.  In spite of all that, I found that I just couldn’t bring myself to slam the door in their sweet old lady faces or even gently tell them that I wasn’t interested.  I felt bad.  So instead, I stood in the doorway and decided to humour them for ten minutes.  When they handed me The Watchtower I took it and even joked that I needed something to read since all my books were in storage – even though I knew it was going to end up in the bin before they’d even made it to the end of my drive.  I didn’t want them to think I was mean.

Fast-forward three years later and those sweet old Jehovahs are still coming back.  We’ve settled into a rhythm.  They ring my doorbell once every couple of months, ask me how I’m doing, drop off their leaflet and then disappear.  They know my name.  They know my dog’s name.  The window for telling them that I’m not interested and have thrown away every single leaflet they’ve given me without reading a single word has looooooong gone.  And so here we are, all because I was too nice to tell them to go away.

This is just one example of how I’m constantly sacrificing my time and energy to spare other people’s feelings.  Social guilt all over the shop, all the time.  So, when I spotted The Good Girl’s Guide to Being a Dick in the airport bookshop, I knew I needed to pick it up.

Alexandra Reinwarth realised that her day to day behaviour was constantly being triggered by her fear of what other people thought of her.  She realised that she was spending far too much time with people she didn’t like, in places she didn’t want to be, doing things she didn’t want to do, all because she worried what people would think of her if she told the honest -often brutal -truth.  She needed to “become a bit of a dick”.  The book explores her journey in taking back control of her life (becoming more of a dick), from ditching a friend who was constantly using her as a doormat, heading into the office without a lick of makeup and dealing with difficult family members – full of funny and insightful anecdotes and advice on how to stop caring what people think.

It’s not a very long book – only six chapters – and so was an easy pool read and I pretty much swallowed the whole thing up in a couple of days (mostly because I kept getting looks around the pool on my choice of reading material and decided that I needed to wrap things up pretty quickly.  Ha!  Three chapters in and I shed that concern!).  While it’s not a traditional self help book in the fact that it doesn’t really contain any real techniques, it’s full of examples to follow and reads like a pep talk in the art of living honestly and getting what you want (without turning into an actual dick in the process!).  

I mean obviously I don’t want to become a dick.  But, reading the book has made me stop and think of all the times I’ve told little lies or put my own happiness aside because I’ve worried what people would think of me; the world won’t end if someone doesn’t like me.  I’ve started to notice whenever I’m heading down that road, and I’ve become a little bit more honest with those around me about what I care about or don’t like.  Of course, the true test will be whether I can tell the Jehovah’s to politely bugger off next time they ring the door bell.  They are due, after all…

Have a great week!  Or not, whatever. 😉

 

 

 

International Women’s Day: Four Bold Books

I loved history lessons when I was in school.  Yep, I was that brace-faced nerd in the front row who always had her hand up in the air and could rattle off random facts about people who’d died hundreds of years ago.  Still am.  Minus the braces, obviously!  But I was never completely satisfied by what I heard in class – all these stories about men and what they did.  Where were the women?

Even today, school history lessons have that old bias.  A handful of Tudor Queens, the suffragettes and Florence Nightingale if you’re lucky… and that’s about it.  Women’s voices are whispers in the footnotes, or on a single, patronising, end-of-topic page about ‘Women’s Roles’.  Wives, whores and witches.  If you want more, you have to go looking for it yourself.  The truth is, that women’s achievements and their place in the history books has – for a very long time – been undermined or belittled by the men (and women!) who were afraid of them.  Like Catherine the Great, who – despite all the amazing things she achieved in her lifetime – still can’t seem to shake off that horrible (and completely untrue) rumour about her and the horse!  And it’s sad, because history is bursting with brilliant and bold women whose stories deserve to be heard in the classroom – not just by girls, but by boys too – particularly right now with the rise of retro-sexism.

Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange. So, here are four bold books about Women’s History that I love.

The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser.  If you’ve never read an historical biography before or you’re just starting out in Women’s History, then Antonia Fraser’s books are the perfect place to start.  She’s written books about Mary Queen of Scots, Charles II and various others. Her biography of Marie Antoinette (which later inspired the Sofia Coppola movie) was the first book by her I ever read and I loved it so, so much that I went on to read the rest.  She writes in such a sympathetic, chatty, story book sort of way that makes the history so easy to digest.  The Weaker Vessel is all about the lives of different women during the Seventeenth Century, when the roles of women and their rights were beginning to change.

Liberty by Lucy Moore.  I’m really into my French history and my Mum was super chuffed when she picked this book up for my birthday one year.  Liberty follows the lives of several different women leading up to, during and after the French Revolution – flashing between them as they get involved in the changing politics, persecution and violence.  Brave ladies.

Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alic.  These days there’s a huge panic because not enough women are getting involved in STEM subjects; stereotypically labelled as “boy’s subjects”.  NOT TRUE.  Women’s fingerprints are on some of the biggest STEM achievements in history.  I picked up Hypatia’s Heritage on Amazon Marketplace and it’s all about women in science right from the ancient world to the nineteenth century – including two of my favourites: Émilie du Châtelet (who dressed up as a man to talk physics in French cafes of the Enlightenment) and Ada Lovelace (child mathematical genius and the very first computer programmer).  Smart women.

Scandalous Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon.  I found this book in Barnes and Noble on holiday one year and refused to leave it behind.  Split into sections like Wayward Wives and Warrior Queens, Scandalous Women is essentially a selection of short biographies written by blogger, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon.  Funny and very easy to read, it’s a good one to dip in and out of, and includes a wide range of women from Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker to Cleopatra and Joan of Arc.

Who are your favourite historical women?  🙂

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I picked up Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, just before Christmas.  I love short stories – particularly ones that dip their toes into magical realism – and having finished Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (…for the third time…), I was on the prowl for something new.  Can’t lie, I was half drawn-in by the cover – it’s a beautiful looking book – and when the blurb on the back promised me “a collection of towering imagination, marked by baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness” I was sold and snapped it up.  (Baroque!)

From the back: “The stories collected in What is Not Yours is Not Yours are linked by more than the exquisitely winding prose of their creator…  The reader is invited into a world of lost libraries and locked gardens, of marshlands where the drowned dead live and a city where all the clocks have stopped; students hone their skills at puppet school, the Homely Wench Society commits a guerrilla book swap, and lovers exchange books and roses on St Jordi’s Day.”

Sounds amazing, right?  Yeah.

Unfortunately for me, I spent the whole book feeling like I was locked out of it and didn’t have a key to get in.  Don’t get me wrong, Helen Oyeyemi’s prose is beautiful at times, but despite that I just couldn’t seem to connect with either the characters or the stories unfolding in front of me.  I found myself getting confused a lot and having to flick back to see if I’d missed something, only to find I was still out there on the doorstep.  It’s a shame; so much of what I wanted and what I like as a reader was right there in front of me, but none of it was digestible or recognisable.  Like doughnuts served up in a blender.  Oh well.  😦

Have you read anything lately that you thought was going to be amazing but ended up disappointing you?

Review: Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

You all know by now that I’m a massive history nerd and so it’d be fair to assume that I lap up historical fiction like vodka on a Friday.  Yeah, I don’t.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it – I’m just really fussy. I’ve been disappointed too many times.  I’ve picked up books expecting to be transported hundreds of years into the past with detailed descriptions of people and places only to find that the writer hasn’t done their research – I want to know all the gory details, people.  I want to know what people ate, what the air smelled like, how they used the toilet.  I want to feel like I’ve just hitched a ride in a Delorean.  And that goes for characters too; characters who act OOE  (Out of Era) annoy the hell out of me.   Oh, and when writers use real historical figures as characters, I tend to get a little bit nervous. (*cough* The Other Boleyn Girl *cough*) 

Anyway, I was looking for a book to take on holiday and doing my usual Amazon click-around when I came across Queen of the Night.  I was taken in by the blurb straight away; “Paris during the Second Empire”OOH – “Mysterious Past, Betrayal” – YESyoung woman’s tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera” – OH YES.  I love stories about women who struggle on and survive, but I was a bit nervous about throwing it into my basket.  The book’s close to six hundred pages, what if I hated the main character and had to, you know, struggle on and survive with her for that many pages?  Phew!  Also, the reviews were… mixed.  The one that most concerned me was the one that warned that there were absolutely no speech marks in any of those six hundred pages, and as that reviewer pointed out, understanding which character was speaking and when became really confusing after a while.

I’m not sure what made me take the plunge in the end.  Maybe it was because I was catching a plane in less than 24 hours and had to pack something, or maybe it was because I so desperately wanted it to be good that I was willing to take a chance on it.  You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I’m so glad I did go with my gut on the book because I completely and utterly fell in love with it.

Lilliet Berne is a legendary opera signer, the toast of Paris at the dawn of the Third Republic.  Known as La Generale in the ballrooms and newspapers, she’s rumoured to throw out diamonds and have a rare “Falcon Soprano” voice that is cursed.  When she’s approached by mysterious writer to appear as the lead in new opera about an American orphan who achieves fame as a circus rider she realises with horror that the libretto is based on her own past, a past that she thought was a secret and that is capable of ruining her reputation.  As Lilliet attempts to uncover the truth about who betrayed her she recalls the truth about her past, a story that begins in a ranch on the American Frontier and ends in the glittering salons of Paris during Second Empire.

Kudos to Alexander Chee, he spent over ten years researching and writing the book and the evidence of that pours from the page.  Everything you’d expect to be in a book set in Paris during the Second Empire is there; the Opera, Worth ballgowns, Can Can Dancers and Courtesans, the Franco-Prussian War, Commune and Seige… it’s all there, entwined with Lilliet’s adventure as she makes her way from orphan to circus rider, from can-can dancer to courtesan to maid of the Empress, as well as people of the era like – my all time fave – the Countess de Castiglione.  They’re written with respect, and fit well into the story.  It’s beautifully researched and written, and by the time I was a hundred pages in I found that the lack of speech marks weren’t the problem they’d been made out to be and that at the rate I was reading it, 600 pages wasn’t going to be enough!  It’s all very Phantom of the Opera (…uh, minus the Phantom).

Now while it’s pretty damn good, it’s not without its problems.  I think part of the reason I loved the book was because I’m a big fan of French history and music – I knew the era and the characters well before I’d even picked up the book.  I’m not sure if someone who was completely alien to it all would enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s beautiful, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And as much as I loved it, once Lilliet’s past caught up with the present, I lost interest a little.  The last fifty pages or so didn’t have the pace of the rest of the book.  As for the speech marks?  To me the fact that they were missing wasn’t a problem at all – but I couldn’t work out why they were missing in the first place.  It wasn’t a publishing mistake, so clearly it was a stylistic decision, but I wondered whether it was a worthwhile one as I’m sure there are readers out there who would be irritated by it.  Lastly, I couldn’t make my mind up about Lilliet as a character.  Even after 600 pages, I didn’t feel like I really knew her.  It felt a little bit like she was modelling the setting and era in the same way that a runway model shows off the clothes.  She was a bit… plain.  But I think that’s just me nitpicking because on the whole I absolutely adored the book 🙂