Reviews 3

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Why? It was the Cheltenham Feminist Book Club book for February.

When I went to buy this book in a bookshop – which, fair enough, is pretty retro – I had no idea where to find it. I’d thought it was a novel but according to the quick google once I had twice gone round the shop I learnt it was actually non-fiction. Once I’d found the book and appreciated the premise, the confusion made a lot more sense. Three women is the culmination of eight years of work by Lisa Taddeo, following the lives of the three women of the title. In many ways the prose seems like fiction. It’s incredibly beautiful, easy-to-read, and compelling. Though all three of the women were very different to me and in very different situations, I found parallels in myself in the way each of the women related to themselves. The story of Maggie in particular, who was essentially groomed by and had a brief relationship with one of her teachers, felt very honest about how it feels to be a young woman and how that can be exploited. Overall, Three Women shows up the pressures and judgements women face in response to their lives and sexuality.

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Why? Picked it up in Blackwells because it is short and the cover is shiny: perfect for attracting women and magpies.

I’m a new Mary Beard fan. I thought she seemed pretty cool from things she stands up for on social media, but I knew nothing about her academic work apart from ‘it’s old stuff’. Having read this …tract? …long essay?, I am a convert. Maybe this text is not her major academic focus but surely a key reason why we study history is to use it as a lense through which to view our world today. She holds your hand and walks through a series of stories where women’s voices have been negated since the ancient Greeks. This is very useful in order to see the historical extent of the issue (Q. Why can’t inequality be fixed quickly? A. Because it’s been going on for literally AGES). After all of this, the most interesting point that she suggests, but perhaps doesn’t elaborate on enough, is that we associate power with dominance and celebrity (and masculinity) but maybe we don’t have to. She opens the possibility for power to be a different kind of thing. I don’t think this necessarily has to be a ‘feminine’ power, but in the continual exploration of women developing power, maybe we can find a way to have power in a different, less aggressive way. Unfortunately this is approximately where she stops. Beyond suggesting that ‘power’ could be different, she offers few suggestions for how it could be different. But opening up this idea is certainly the first step to a wider way of thinking.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Why? I read about it in Mary Beard’s Women and Power and it sounded like an interesting concept. Also I was keen to read more CPG.

The broad premise of this book is that three male explorers discover a remote nation completely unconnected with the rest of the world, and this world is entirely populated by women. There are no men at all, despite the three explorers being convinced that there must be men hidden away somewhere, especially because this nation is civilised – it is indeed inconceivable that women might be able to develop and run a civilised nation. After the men live in this nation for a while and they start to exchange ideas, they learn that the women have developed the ability to reproduce without men and that it truly is a nation entirely of women. Herland, however, is not what they imagine a world full of women to be like; the women are strong, highly educated and kind, unlike women that the explorers expect who are ‘feminine’, sniping and coquettish. Over 2000 years, the women of Herland have worked together to advance their nation as far as possible, to ensure everyone has space, food and community. This world is almost utopian compared to the horror, famine and poverty in the world that the men come from, where men are the leaders and women stay at home (‘our world’ as it was to Gilman in the early 20th century). The compassion and intelligence of the Herland women, however, leads them to believe that life and the world must be superior with the two sexes and that they have much to learn from the rest of the world. We can see how wrong they are through the narrator, Van, one of the explorers, who hesitates to tell them fully about the patriarchal world compares to their matriarchal society.

This book is very slim but took me a much longer time to read than I thought because after the adventure of reaching Herland, it does get fairly philosophical. It’s not un-readably dense, but there are a lot of ideas that you might want to sit with. The ideas are very interesting to consider in the light of several things at the moment. First, the idea that Mary Beard suggests in Women and Power that the only established way to have power is very masculine and perhaps women don’t have to wield power in a way that simply emulates the way men have held it. The way the women of Herland relate to each other challenges these power dynamics and actually suggests some ways female leadership (or our whole idea of leadership) could be different. In a way, Herland offers suggestions to the problems that Beard postulates in Women and Power. Secondly, perhaps we could see Herland as a counterpoint to Naomi Alderman’s The Power. This shows an opposing view of women and power, instead of the utopia of Herland, when women develop powerful electricity which gives them superior power over men in The Power, the world turns into dystopia, women, it turns out, can be just as violent and ruthless as men, it is simply a matter of power. Perhaps you would argue that this shows Gilman’s naivety, but I would disagree, I feel that all Alderman’s questions of power and opposition are redundant in Herland. Gilman’s women have no opposition to face because they simply have no men at all, and their power is not a question of superior physical strength (though these women are also strong) so they are free to build their own community without any question of fighting over sex. What has really sent the message home over the past year for me has been the different attitudes towards the virus between male and female heads of state. This is not a strict line, but generally the attitude of female premiers has been to go to all lengths possible to protect the population of their country, combatting the virus effectively, with much lower death tolls and shorter lockdowns, whilst prominent male leaders have blustered around, ignoring the seriousness of the situation, and telling people to prepare for their loved ones to die. Perhaps there is more in this than gender and compassion, perhaps these women are merely protecting their own backs because, we all know, if they were to ‘fail’ in this they would surely be blamed more harshly than their male counterparts. Either way, it is effective. So I would recommend Herland for all of the reasons above, but beyond these, you have to read this simply to enjoy the irony of Gilman writing, more than one hundred years ago, about how amazing it was for the women of Herland to have practical clothes WITH POCKETS. How do we still not have pockets?

(To be fair, Herland, should also come with a warning that, while some ideas seem pretty modern, others are decidedly historic.)

Bjarni Herjólfsson’s Diary 986

Over at Alt Book Club, because we can’t have comedy nights any more, we’ve been launching weekly writing challenges with a silly theme for a bit of fun and some creative deadlines. This week’s challenge was to write a diary entry as an important historical figure & I took part too – sadly, I also launched and partly judged the competition so I can’t win because that’s at least bribery, if not worse. However, I can put it up here, so here it is. It is extremely silly.


What a rubbish couple of days. We’ve really been screwed over by the stars – the little twinkling minxes have been moving around so much that it’s been impossible to work out which way we’re going. The sea sickness doesn’t help. I take one look up toward the heavens and before I can tell my Great Bear from my elbow, I’m reaching over my oar to chuck up in the ocean. Really lucky to have this waterproof slate and chalk to write my feelings upon, wish we’d invented a compass though, that would have been bloody useful. 

So how did me and my fearsome Viking crew end up in this mess, I know you’re all begging to find out. Don’t worry, you know you can trust me to dish the gory details. Basically, we were having our annual break from an almost constant, grueling schedule of looting and pillaging – our annual leave if you will – and we all know all the best Vikings have a soft spot for our ol mam and paps. How can you help but feel a deep, intense connection between those two angels who brought you up since you were a little Vikling – who fed you, clothed you, and taught you the most efficient way to extort sweet, sweet danegeld from scaredy, baldy monks. Naturally, we were on our way back to see the old OAVs (Old Age Vikings) back on the farm in Iceland. I was looking forward to the delicious pie of our enemies’ eyes that Mama always used to make when we were too small to scare a goose. It’s one of those recipes that you try when you’re older – with your own enemies – but somehow, it just never tastes quite the same. I think her secret is always using free-range…

We turn up at our old homestead expecting everything to be exactly the same as it has been for the past 100 years – same outdoor toilet hole (they’re always saying they’ll install walls one day), same axe lent against the doorway incase they needed to dispatch one of us kids for not eating all of our dinner, same old mad shaman talking about a volcano that’s going to ground flights from Heathrow for a week – whatever that even means. And you’ll never believe it but they’d gone! Up ship and left without leaving so much as a rune. The shaman, after telling us again about the widespread disruption to aviation caused by Eyjafjallajökull (I mean what sort of a word even is that: aviation???! Ridiculous), said Ma and Pops had fallen head over head for enigmatic explorer ‘Erik the Red’ and had hopped on his most recent expedition as new recruits. When we asked how on earth he’d been persuaded to take on such aged new recruits, the shaman looked us straight in the eyes and said the words ‘enemy eye pie’. Of course she’d got him with her cooking. We all paused to think of that delicious pie before questioning the Shaman further. He revealed that Eric the Red’s latest mission was to discover Greenland. ‘Who was this explorer and why was he so into primary colours?’ we wondered briefly, before climbing back on board our ship and heading west.

Now we’ve been on this boat for more than 30 days and we’re no nearer our first bite of that pie – though Ruthlessson at the front of the ship has just shouted about seeing some land! We’ve all been craning our necks to try and get a glimpse. I stood on Angrysson’s shoulders but it wasn’t very clear. Didn’t look like a green land to me. There must be a way to make the far away land much clearer to see – note to self, really would be worth inventing the ‘telescope’ when we’re back on dry land.

We’re much closer to the land now but it doesn’t look right. All these extremely tall buildings that look as though they are scraping the sky. We’re not landing as it looks highly suspect. The lads have been calling it ‘Am Erik ahhh’ in aid of our brave explorer and how scary it looks. I doubt much will become of it.

The Alt Writing Challenge will continue through lockdown so head to if you’d like to take part!

Reviews 2

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Why? My very good friend (since primary school!) Heather gave me this book for my birthday along with some hilarious pencils.

Wise Children is set in the world of theatre and showbiz so it is fitting that reading the book is more like catching a show than settling into a novel. Nora and Dora, twin sisters and illegitimate daughters of Melchoir Hazard, recount the story of their lives. Dora is our narrator – or compere – and she tells us these stories from the distant perspective of the twins’ 75th birthday. Their lives, even at 75, are a riot of intense characters and theatrical plot twists. Much of the story centers around their relationship (or lack thereof) with their father, as well as his extended family. The ‘legitimate’ offspring of Melchoir Hazard seem to fare much better than the Chance sisters, Nora and Dora, but Dora’s re-telling shows much of the family success about as thick as greasepaint, hiding some pretty shady characters and proclivities underneath. The story and their lives flash past, crossing and recrossing the line between reality and stage show. Wise Children is a thrill to read and an absolute masterclass in storytelling.


Mythos by Stephen Fry

Why? Went to Oxford to watch the Mind Comedy Gala & stopped in at Blackwells, Mythos caught my eye.

Mythos is a modern digest of the Greek myths, including all the ones you’ve definitely heard before, as well as a bunch of others that are less well-known, but equally ridiculous. Stephen Fry has done all of the hard-work selecting, curating and updating the stories so it’s an absolute breeze to read. I’ll be honest, I have tried to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is a major source for the Greek myths, but I did not get very far. Now I find the reason I struggled with Ovid, is because, unlike Fry, he has not allowed the gods to refer to each other as “bro” or “dude” or “my homie” which honestly makes it all far more readable. Unfortunately Fry’s sweep of modernisation only covers language, rather than culture, more specifically rape cutlure, which is pretty prolific in Ancient Greek myth. It is certainly interesting to read these stories now, given that the Greek Myths are our cultural ancestors and still have a huge impact on how we view ourselves and society today. In fact, part of the reason why I picked the book was out of a feeling of cultural ineptitude: if you didn’t learn about the Greek Myths at boarding school, how else are you supposed to become Prime Minister? Turns out, all you have to know to become PM is that Zeus had a lot of sex with mortal and immortal women, most of which was non-consensual. Voila, one of our foundational stories about power!

If you are prepared to overlook the various power inequalities between men and women, the myths are fascinating and bonkers. You may know already that Zeus gives birth to Athena through his head, but did you know that she got there because Zeus ate her mum, Metis, when she was in the form of a fly – and she just stays there in his brain offering him wisdom? Did you know that Athena is not the only baby that Zeus gestates? When one of his lovers is dying of disease on a funeral pyre (this trauma is also caused by Zeus, but we agreed to overlook that…), he saves her unborn child by cutting out of her womb and placing it inside his thigh! No wonder Dionysus has a drinking problem when he grows up.

Actually reading the Greek myths (particularly through this modernised edition) goes some way to demystifying the stories. I mean, they are still largely bonkers, but they become bonkers stories that you know, rather than cultural relics paraded by a minority who went to private school.


Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Why? My wonderful friend Abi gave me this book as a birthday gift saying it was the best thing she’d read all year.

Unmarriageable is Pride and Prejudice but set in Pakistan around the year 2000, which is literally how it is described on the cover (“Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan”). And that is exactly what it is, a reinterpretation, along with some pretty overt references/active discussions of the OG Pride and Prejudice – set in Hampshire probably. Now I am a Jane Austen fan, I appreciate that not everyone has been converted to this camp but pack your tent and hike with me for the time being. My admiration for Jane and her works is precisely why this book is delightful and also cringey. If you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, its core very much resembles romance and its brilliance lies in Austen’s incisive observation of character and social interaction. Unmarriageable has the same wonderful array of characters, well-observed heroines, villains and bores, transported to a small town in Pakistan. It’s refreshing to see the classic story transformed into a new culture and I would love to see more of this. Austen gets too much of a bad rep for presenting life in her novels exactly as life was like for her (and for most middle class women at the time) so her stories deserve to be transported and updated to what life is like for women in different places and times.

However, Unmarriageable doesn’t quite stop at being a lovely reinterpretation, Kamal unfortunately seems to feel an absolutely unnecessary pressure to make constant reference to the original P&P within the story. This is when Unmarriageable is at its most cringey. Okay, we get that this is an homage to P&P, so it feels a bit weird that the main character, Alys Binat (Elizabeth Bennet, get it…?), also loves P&P and talks about it all the time. She even compares herself to Elizabeth and compares what is going on in ‘her’ life – her life that is a story replicating the plot of P&P – TO P&P. I guess it was supposed to be sophisticated metafiction, but to me it felt awkward and icky, undermining the whole premise of the book and ramming home the message “BY THE WAY THIS IS LIKE THE FAMOUS STORY PRIDE AND PREJUDICE!!!!!!” to readers who are likely already Austen fans and also not idiots.


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Why: It was on a display shelf in the library with a recommendation next to it. I’d always meant to read it so I picked it up and started reading instead of doing the work I was supposed to be doing.

Oh god. I don’t want to write about this book because it is so much and too much. I appreciate that that sentence is tautological and nothing-y but perhaps it makes sense if you have read the book?

Kevin is a book so well-known in popular culture that on picking this book up, you know you’re going to read about a high-school massacre, so perhaps you ought to know how unbearable it will be. I didn’t anticipate it. Not in any properly comprehending way – not the extent of the horror. Now, I don’t want to be misleading, this book is not a horror or true crime genre staple by any means. It is deeply and darkly psychological, playing you against yourself, as you sympathise with, question, and perhaps revile the narrator – Kevin’s mother, Eva.

Throughout I felt burdened by the weight of Eva’s testimony, which you read as letters sent to her husband, after the massacre. Much like a Donna Tartt novel, the depth and acuity of the writing means the story pervades your day-to-day life; you really live with it while you’re reading the novel and its impact hovers over you like grief, long after finishing the last page. For me, the novel, and Eva, felt like they were dragging me down with them and unearthed fears of motherhood I had never fully appreciated. I haven’t read many critic’s takes, but I feel that now, in light of our greater attention to gender bias, we could have a much more fruitful discussion about the social expectations surrounding Eva and motherhood. I truly feel those expectations, and the role of her husband, are at the core of the novel, rather than a simplistic analysis of nature or nurture. The question ‘was it the mother’s fault or was the baby just bad?’ is far too binary for the complexity of the narrative and depth of the characters, and reaching a definitive ‘conclusion’ about whose fault it is probably misses the point. It is a novel which will stay with me and continue to shape my thinking


Under the Greenwood Tree

Why: It’s the Hammerpuzzle Christmas play at the Studio theatre and I felt like I ought to read the book before seeing it – plus the director assured me that it was “very short”.

I was fully convinced that Thomas Hardy’s MO was misery. Having read his poetry about his late wife, and knowing how he had treated her, I’d never felt a particular sense of affection for Hardy, though after reading Under the Greenwood Tree, I’ll openly admit I’d wrongly pigeon-holed the bloke. Sure, his major hit, Far From the Madding Crowd, is fairly relentlessly miserable but there are lovely rural bits and, at the end of the day, the story is about dogged, faithful love. Under the Greenwood Tree is all of those good bits without the misery! Would you believe it, T. Hardy even cracks a few jokes?! I wouldn’t say laugh a minute, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, but he certainly painted sweetly funny situations and characters. The two protagonists were more charming than frustrating for the most part – and even the frustrating things about them (mostly the arguments about wearing a bonnet or a hat) were quaint.

But the stand-out element for me, rather than the gentle love story, was the ‘quire’ (or choir). I can’t think of much that is more bucolic than a troupe of townsmen roaming about their village with various stringed instruments (but certainly not any evil ‘clarnets’) serenading or irritating their neighbours with carols and hymns. While reading this, I spent much time desperately wishing I hadn’t given up the violin, even though I was truly AWFUL at it, so I could now join one such troupe, that definitely doesn’t exist anymore, and harass the good people of Cheltenham.


What Would Boudicca Do?

Why: I read Shakespeare for Grown Ups earlier in the year in order to write Shakespeare 101. This is by the same duo (plus I wanted to know more about Boudicca).

This takes a day or so to read, is delightful, and should be given to all women upon their 18th birthday. The concept is simple: the lives of 50 women from history can teach us about key elements of life today, so you have the history side and the, I guess, ‘empowerment’ side. I’m not crazy about the ‘empowerment’ side, partly because the whole concept feels fairly commoditised at the minute, and partly because Boudicca’s merciless and brutal rebellion against the Romans in response to them taking her lands, flogging her, and raping her daughters, seems a little bit trivialised when the message we can take from it is ‘sticking up for yourself’.That being said, the writing is sharp, modern, and often hilarious, so the ocassionally trite take-home messages can be forgiven (just like Cleopatra you should ‘keep your family in line’ – except they’re not advising you to marry your brother and then poison him, but maybe just to tell them to keep out of your room and stop reading your diary).

The history part, on the other hand, is excellent. I haven’t come across any other book that is a history of incredible women throughout history, let alone one which condenses it so efficiently and riotously. Even better, the women are brilliantly diverse – in terms of era, notoriety, geography, ethnicity, and gender binary – the balance is well-drawn between women you will have heard of, and women you ought to have heard of. Reading this gave me a much better sense of the wealth and extent of female achievement, that I don’t think was ever focused on or appreciated in history lessons at school, or trips to the museum. In textbooks, the lives of women plural in whatever period are touched on in a paragraph, but seldom is a single women lauded for her own achievements or her whole life appreciated and explained. What Would Boudicca Do? is invaluable because of its witty potted-biographies, explaining where each woman came from (her social background and historical context) and how they achieved their greatness. For me, it was this part that made these women seem relatable and not the more marketable, self-help-y stuff about helping you to be a better woman. The history and writing is absolutely worth it & it should be taught in schools.

Victory at The Battle of Boat

Presented by the students of Stagedoor Learning, for one night only at the Parabola Arts Centre, The Battle of Boat was a refreshing and innovative take on a piece of history we know all too well.

In a welcome departure from the majority of World War One stories, The Battle of Boat did not focus on life in the trenches but instead rooted its story firmly at home, following a group of children living in wartime Britain.

The bold and ambitious story takes us from a seemingly innocent and carefree opener: “these are the golden hours, where the choice of what we do is ours”. Through an awakening to what the war is actually like, and then the children’s steadfast determination to make a difference – even more so when one of their number, William, is recruited as a soldier, despite being underage.

Though the show was very good throughout, especially given the age of the cast, the strongest moments were consistently the large ensemble pieces. The opening number in particular set a clear, confident scene with joyful harmonies, accompanying a flurry of activity to show the busy, playful lives of this group of children. The set was used extremely creatively, with the actors building their playground from simple crates (the crates showed impeccable workmanship and consistently stole the show, caveat: they were made by my dad who is now looking for more props to make…call me).

Similar stand out moments of ensemble included a classroom scene built up with clockwork, repetitive actions, as well as a powerful moment where the children play at being soldiers in lines which orderly cut through and around each other. The strength of the ensemble lies in some inspired directing, as well as a power and intensity from all of the actors who were clearly very invested in the world and characters they had developed.

Photo: Stagedoor Learning

Though the show covers some very serious and heartbreaking topics, there is brilliant humour throughout. This is largely generated by ‘Beagle’, played with aplomb by Saskia Clifton. Clifton has a great sense of playfulness and comic timing, in one moment distracting characters and audience alike from the seriousness of sneaking onto an army base by ‘camel-flarging’ herself as a bush – simply repeating the word BUSH to establish the effectiveness of her disguise.

Other notable performances include Joseph Stanley as William, the young man accepted into the army despite being underage, Sean Kilty as Gripper, the playground bully and Izzy Robinson as Frances, William’s intelligent and heartbroken sister. Stanley and Robinson’s duet, whilst one is in the trenches and the other safe at home, was incredibly moving, showing them both forced to mature beyond their years because of events far, far bigger than they can imagine. Meanwhile, Kilty’s Gripper was deeply menacing, showing that war was not the only danger for the children. In fact, it is revealed that Gripper’s malice is driven by his father’s ‘cowardice’; his family have been shamed by the community because his father is a conscientious objector. This motivation elicits sympathy for his character and demonstrates how the war is impacting on all the children’s lives in more than just the obvious ways.

Though troubled with some technical issues, The Battle of Boat was a captivating story, giving an insight into a lesser known aspect of our history. It was invested with power, emotion and some extremely talented vocals by the whole ensemble, who received a well-deserved standing ovation.

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