Monthly Archives: February 2012

SEX WARS by Marge Piercy

In SEX WARS we meet amazing powerful women who are fighting for women’s rights in the late 19th century, as well as those fighting just as hard to deny them those rights. Many of the characters are real including Anthony Comstock, whose Comstock Law made it illegal to send ‘obscene’ material through the post, including contraceptive information, Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, suffragette, proponent of free love and first woman to stand for President, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who campaigned for woman to have the vote as well as for reform of the property laws, women’s economic rights and birth control, the abortionist Madam Ann Restell, and Lucretia Mott, women’s rights and abolitionist activist. We also learn how the women doing daily battle with poverty to care for their families have done just as much to progress sexual equality as the high-profile campaigners remembered by history. Their story is represented by Freydeh, a fictional but larger than life Jewish woman, newly arrived from Russia and who is determined to build a new life step by painstaking step, ambitious for her family and surrogate family, and willing to adapt in order to survive, and ultimately thrive, on New York’s tough streets. The paths of all these characters cross from time to time as the story unfolds but what really binds them is Marge Piercy’s understanding of the sacrifices people make to follow their passions, be they political, religious or economic. She also vividly portrays the extent to which misogyny, domesticity, poverty and so-called morality conspire to try to prevent women taking control of their own lives. Not being able to vote is only the tip of the iceberg. Nineteenth century American women have no rights to see their children if they seek divorce, cannot own property in their own name, have no workplace rights and have to endure the double standards that mean they are arrested for prostitution whilst the men buying sex usually get off scott free and mean they are ostracised for having affairs for which men are admired and applauded. This one paragraph from the novel illustrates how inequality is a matter of life and death:

I had a letter today about a young girl in Philadelphia, an English immigrant who went into domestic service. Her employer forced himself on her, then turned her int the street when she was expecting. She had her baby in an unheated garret, alone, and the baby died. She was close to starvation and had puerperal fever, but she has been tried for murder by a jury of men and is to be hanged. The judge outright said at sentencing the was making an example of her to scare other women.

As someone whose childhood was peppered with unheard protests about having to do the dishes whilst my brother didn’t and whose job brings me into regular contact with appalling data about sexual violence, the gender pay gap and women’s continued lack of representation my verdict is this: a powerful novel about a war still being fought.


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Covering some similar territory as Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, this is an incredibly honest look at Jeanette Winterson’s past and how it influences her writing. Whilst Oranges was not meant to be autobiographical, many elements were drawn directly from her own childhood.  Here we learn much more about her relationship with her mother, how books rescued her and how difficult it is learning to be loved if you have known so much rejection. The writer’s childhood and the joy found in words take centre stage for much of the book, preparing us – and her – for the point at which she decides to find her birth mother. The way that anger takes the place of feeling other things, the way that, as a working class woman from Accrington, everything about wanting to be a writer was a massive fight, the way that being adopted and then denied anything resembling what most of us would recognise as love, are all dissected and we learn how they have played their role in shaping Jeanette Winterson as a writer and as a woman. Dave Haslam, Manchester DJ and former neighbour of mine, once wrote that great music came out of adversity and grit – the same could be said for  Jeanette Winterson’s writing.

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THREE CUPS OF TEA by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin

The strap line on the front cover of this book is “One man’s extraordinary journey to promote peace…one school at a time” so it appealed immediately to two of my core beliefs; the power of education and the importance of building peace. It didn’t disappoint. Greg Mortenson is a climber who gets lost on the descent from a failed attempt to scale K2. He stumbles, literally, into the village of Korphe where he is deeply touched by the welcome he receives and the sight of children kneeling on frosty ground to do their lessons, promising he will raise enough money to build them a school – and fund a teacher. Greg is not well connected, his family are not well off and he knows nothing about fundraising so he struggles to keep that promise. But a combination of determination and passion means that about a year later he returns to Korphe- only to discover that the village has decided they also need a bridge, in order to safely transport the building materials for the school across the Braldu Valley. Such set backs are part and parcel of Greg’s story but he never gives up and, guided by the many remarkable individuals with whom he crosses paths in Pakistan, he goes on to  give hundreds of children – and, crucially, girls – an alternative to the madrassas springing up across the country, many with ” a curriculum that emphasized jihad and hatred of the West at the expense of subjects like maths, science and literature.”  Greg is in Pakistan when the twin towers are brought down, and the response of those around him is an all too rare insight into what Islam really considers important. ” I request America to look into our hearts”, says Syed Abbas, with whom Greg has worked to bring a primary school to the village of Kuardu, “and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.” America was not in listening mode though and, as the reprisals begin, Greg starts to work in Afghanistan too, later throwing a spotlight on the US’s failure to deliver aid promised to the region. Part of this story’s appeal is that Greg seems so likeable – although it’s definitely worth pointing out that this wife, Tara, is a saint. He doesn’t seem to seek any glory or praise for what he is achieving, he’s just proud of the students and their ambitions for themselves. Peace in that part of the world may still feel like distant dream but there is no doubt that his efforts are helping it take root, winning far more hearts and minds than your average American intervention. Read this book if you want to be inspired – and humbled.

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It’s a pleasant surprise to every so often get a message letting me know someone new has found my blog and likes one my reviews. When time allows, I visit their blogs in return and see if they are recommending any new reads. Doing this led me to discover The Eclectic Reader Challenge, which is designed to encourage you to break out of any reading ruts you might be in. I am pretty eclectic already in my reading choices but there are genres I tend to shy away from, such as historical fiction, so I thought I would give the challenge a try and read one book from each of the categories by the end of 2012. I haven’t decided all the books I will read yet but here’s a list so far, which I will update as I progress:

Literary FictionWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. One of my favourite writers. Enough said.

Crime/Mystery FictionThe Boy In The Suitcase by Agnete Friis. And of course the rest of the Jo Nesbo books, the re-reading of which has been rudely interrupted by The Snowman’s disappearance from my bookshelves and a total mind blank about who I might have lent it to.

Romantic Fiction – that’s a difficult one so let me come back to it.

Historical FictionThe Last Nude by Ellis Avery or possibly Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers. Or possibly both.

Young Adult Fiction – an old friend recommended I read Exodus by Julia Bertanga, which is about climate change, and so I decided to check it out. There are two sequels as well – even better. So these make it onto the list as one entry. I hope I like them as much as I liked The Hunger Games Trilogy. Am going to also sneak in Incarnate by Jodi Meadows as just read a review that has really intrigued me.

Fantasy – Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World is pure genius and laugh out loud funny so I have high hopes of his second book – Angelmaker, which is my fantasy choice.

Science Fiction Mirage by Matt Ruff. Sewer Gas  & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy is one of my favourite books of all time but I have not enjoyed his other novels quite as much. I think I might like this one though.

Non FictionThe Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. This was lent to me last year and is still languishing on the book shelf as I am not sure I need to know more about the way the internet seeks to controls our lives and sell us things…..

Horror – research and book shop browsing needed! As a teenegar I read lots of horror under the sheets, late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. But in my old age (!) have forgotten its appeal so this is a good opportunity to revisit.

Thriller/Suspense – I have heard good things about Defending Jacob by William Landay so shall give it a go.

Classic – have been thinking for a while that a re-read of some George Eliot is long overdue so Middlemarch or Mill on the Floss may well make it into the challenge.

Your favourite genre – not really sure I have a favourite genre, just ones I like less, so still thinking about my choice for this part of the challenge.


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LULLABY by Chuck Palahniuk

I really wanted to like this book. It was bought for me by someone very lovely and it’s by the author of Fight Club so should have been great. But it left me cold, I am afraid. I didn’t get the humour. I didn’t like any of the characters and I found the whole story very disturbing. It’s about a group of people trying to destroy all the printed copies of a culling poem – a poem which if read to someone or even said at them in your head causes them to drop dead immediately. It appears in a book of verse for children, so countless infants have been killed by the poem and the idea is to prevent this from happening in future. There’s a lot in here about power, about whether what one person deems to be beneficial for the world is actually harmful, about over population and what we do to our environment. All things which interest me hugely so I should have liked the book. But I just didn’t. It’s undoubtedly clever, wacky and imaginative but it’s not getting a recommendation from me.

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I started this trilogy on the first leg of a long train journey and decided to squeeze in a visit to a bookshop to pick up the next 2 installments before getting back on the train – good thing too as massive delays! These books are written for teenagers so they are a fast read but they are totally gripping and I love anything that’s basically about good vs evil. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to replace her sister in the annual Hunger Games, a brutal reality TV programme that screens live 24/7. The Games serve as a reminder to the 12 districts that now make up North America, that rising up against the Capitol’s cruelty and control is futile – and that their children will forever pay the price of previous attempts at rebellion. 24 children enter the Games arenda but only one can leave victorious – and alive. Katniss is joined by a boy from her district,  the baker’s son, and against the odds the two survive extreme weather, genetically modified beasts, attacks by their fellow competitors, disease and everything else the Capitol can throw at them. Their strategy of pretending to be in love wins over the audience and when they threaten suicide if they cannot leave together, the Capitol is forced to let them both win the Games.  The pair have unleashed a chain of events that eventually leads to the Capitol’s overthrow. They unknowingly and then reluctantly become part of an underground movement that sees them join forces with previous winners of the Hunger Games, re-enter the Games arena and discover district 13, that they had long believed destroyed by the Capitol in the dark Days.  Katniss is a very cool cat, constantly trying to overcome what she feels is her selfishness and do the right thing. As Peeta and her old friend Gale fight for her love, they come to symbolise the tension between peaceful and violent revolution – do the means ever justify the ends and just how much does power corrupt?  And very best of all, it’s coming soon to a cinema near you….


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