Earth – an Object Lessons book review

earthI loved the sound of Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton (one of the Object Lessons series published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic). Object Lessons is an essay and book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things – however, this book takes a different approach to the others. We don’t often consciously think of the earth as an object, and certainly it seems incongruous listed among the other objects in the series – Bookshelf, Egg, High Heel, or Tumour for example. Earth is more philosophical than factual, a thoroughly human depiction of the Earth in the form of letters between a planetary scientist and a medievalist.

It is rare to find a truly co-disciplinary approach to any subject, but the form of this book – a back and forth of letters/skype/FB messages between Elkins-Tanton and Cohen – allows viewpoints equal weighting of disciplines while creating an interplay of ideas. Both share a fascination with the wonder of the pale blue dot we call home, and it is a pleasure to ‘eavesdrop’ on their correspondence, which is increasingly personal as a friendship develops. This book really helped me to visualise the beauty and complexity of the Earth as they examine it from different scales and perspectives, veering off into asides on beauty, perception, creativity and the imagination. The writers describe this as a “little book about an impossibly large subject”, albeit a subject every reader will view with fresh eyes for having read it. I was expecting more facts, less philosophy (although there are some science bits) but this is my favourite of the Object Lessons series I have read so far.

Earth is published by Bloomsbury Academic. I received an ecopy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Worlds Apart: A Muslim Girl with the SAS, Azi Ahmed

cover_worlds_apart_aaWorlds Apart: A Muslim Girl with the SAS tells the story of the clash between two very different worlds – so different it almost beggars belief that anyone could have survived in both camps for so long. Yet as we come to know Azi Ahmed through this incredible true story we realise that if anyone can do it she can –she works evenings and weekends in her family’s takeaway; excels in her chosen university; starts her own business and buys her own apartment in London when she is just 24. She is a powerhouse, and if anything seems odd it is that her family believed for so long that she was a dutiful daughter who would accept an arranged marriage, not that such a determined person could survive as a Muslim woman in the military.

Ahmed’s unique perspective on the SAS – as a physically slight woman with no previous military experience encountering deep rooted ethnic bias and sexism – makes for interesting reading, especially for those of us who know of it only as the reserve of hard men and hard men wannabes. She is never fully in the SAS – she is in the army for three years, and is one of the miniscule number of women to proceed through the rigorous training and selection process, and so gives unprecedented insight into an elite organization. She details her grueling training, provides insight into the culture not only of the SAS but of the British military, and I imagine anyone with an interest in the military would enjoy this.

However, I preferred parts of the book detailing the (less extreme?) culture clash of her traditional upbringing and her growing determination and sense of self. At one point in her childhood she is waiting at a bus stop and is verbally abused by racist teens as everyone else ignores what is happening… after she escapes on the bus she gives them the finger through the window, only for the same passengers to be shocked and appalled. Ahmed draws attention to the double standards people live by when judging others, which are as interesting as the double life that she lived.  I would also have liked to have heard more about her burgeoning political career – although judging by how much she has packed into her life to date, there will be more biographies in the future!

I received a copy of this book via Bookollective in return for an honest review.

Hunting Girls- Book Review

 

oliverKelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape certainly has an interesting premise. Written by an eminent feminist philosopher (currently Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University) it looks at popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence (especially sexual violence) is an inevitable, part of feminine coming of age. I came to this book with high hopes for its content.

 “Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans, and the occasional vampire, so appealing? Is this equal opportunity killing?… Killing, instead of loving, animals has become the emblem of girl power. Just as girls are hunted and attacked with relish in these films, our heroines displace that patriarchal violence onto their animal prey”.

The first sections of the book examines several popular movies/franchises in light of violence perpetrated by the heroines and upon them, particularly by their romantic partners. The discussion of the symbolism of hunting provide the most interesting sections of the book. However, despite going over the plot of The Hunger Games (trilogy), the movie Hanna, and a few fairly random name checks and one liners (Merida from Brave has a bow!), it all feels a bit hollow. The best of the points she makes were made by Carol J Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat over twenty years ago.

In the final section of the book, Oliver refocuses on the real world, particularly through the growing prevalence of campus rape in the United States. As an educator, Oliver obviously has strong views about sexual violence on campuses and who is responsible for this culture – to the point she loses objectivity. She ‘name drops’ the Hunting Ground documentary in a way that I was not comfortable with – reducing these real women to more archetypes for analysis. I am not a fan of trigger warnings, but Oliver is extremely dismissive of the need to provide safe spaces for survivors of assault. While I agree with her that there needs to be discussion and debate around the causes of rape culture, I disagree that victims of sexual assault cannot be simultaneously protected and respected.

 I found this book disappointing on a number of levels. Close to the end of the book Oliver states “we should focus on the ways in which girl power in these films is also the result of girls and women bonding together to nurture and protect each other”. I’m going to set aside my utter loathing for the phrase ‘girl power’ for a moment and agree with this. So, if Oliver believes this why didn’t she do that, rather than tearing apart these characters, encouraging the reader to look at them through a violent male gaze instead? That there is a significant issue with the packaging of female suffering as entertainment there is no doubt – but this book is an unrelentingly negative attack on the majority of strong female characters in the past ten years. Which is helpful how? The recasting of these YA heroines as new Disney princesses is gimmicky and doesn’t work (Bella Swan and Edward as Beauty and the Beast anyone? Anyone? No, me neither).  It’s also disappointing that she focuses on the flattened film versions of more complex book series, not least because this insures she is speaking about white women and girls when she talks about women and girls.

 Oliver’s point seems to be that a lack of consent is something prevalent and reinforced by popular culture – which is a bit of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ conclusion to come to. I expected Hunting Girls to be an analysis of, and perhaps a suggested response to, rape culture. Instead this book concludes that yes, there is indeed a rape culture, and lack of consent as a virtue has been around for as long as the Sleeping Beauty myth has. In essence, Hunting Girls is a journal article stretched into a (short) book, shorter again if we take out the plot summaries of several movie franchises that bulk out the first two-thirds of the book. This pop culture analysis, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t mesh with the campus rape discussion in the latter third of the book at all. While some of the points raised are interesting, I felt this book left a lot to be desired.

Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape by Kelly Oliver is published by Columbia University Press and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

 

 

In the Heart of the Sea – book review

Heart of SeaNathaniel Philbrick’s account of the whaleship Essex (the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick) could be the textbook example of how truth is stranger than fiction. Philbrick draws heavily on the accepted contemporary narrative – the account of the doomed voyage from first mate Owen Chase. He adds to this his own extensive research into the island of Nantucket, and its place in the global economy of the time. Interestingly, he also draws on the more recently uncovered first person account written by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson – which paints a far less heroic version of Owen Chase.

The 240 tonne whaleship Essex left the port of Nantucket on August 12th 1819 to hunt whales and extract their natural oil (a process as pleasant as it sounds). At the time, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. Whale oil was used to light lanterns, and was in such high demand that even in a time of worldwide recession, business was booming on Nantucket. In 1821, two survivors of the Essex were found floating near Chile. The men were sunburnt and babbling, “sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates”. In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of everything that happens in between.

 I wasn’t sure if I should read this book at all. Moby Dick is a book I appreciate academically Chris chestrather than actually enjoy reading. I’m also very much #teamwhale, which is the main reason I haven’t seen the recent movie adaptation directed by Ron Howard. I imagine it would be far too visceral for me, both in terms of whale death and the destruction of Chris Hemsworth glorious chest! Let me be clear here, the whale deaths are not glossed over in this book:

 ”When the lance finally found its marks, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen-to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout. ‘Chimney’s afire!’ As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws – even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid – the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.”

 Bear in mind, this was not a harpoon shot by a machine, but hand thrown by a man in a row boat in extreme proximity to the whale. Despite the gruesomeness of the subject matter in places, this book was a far more entertaining read than I could have imagined, and I am delighted I decided to take a chance on it. That Nantucket was predominantly Quaker makes the ruthlessness of the primary industry chosen by these pacifists fascinating – little wonder why Melville called the inhabitants of the island “Quakers with a vengeance”. The “clannish commitment to the hunt” on Nantucket; the environmental destruction the sailors caused on islands they encountered; the politics of life aboard the ships were all just as interesting as the main story. Philbrick’s enthusiasm for his subject is so contagious it gives this book the pace and narrative drive of fiction. The main story – the will to survive; man vs nature; the descent into cannibalism – could have been overblown in fiction, however, in Philbrick’s hands, it is credible and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 In the Heart of the Sea is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

The Wicked Boy – book review

wickedboyIn West Ham in 1895, two young brothers suddenly seem to have a bit more money and freedom than usual. Robert and Nattie Coombes, twelve and thirteen respectively spent a few weeks going to the theatre; to cricket at Lords; frequenting the coffee shops around the docklands, and telling anyone who enquired that their mother was visiting Liverpool. Truth will out however, and the boys are ultimately discovered smoking and playing cards at home in a room that reeks of their decomposing mother.

Robert and Nattie are placed on trial for matricide, and Robert admits to killing her in her bed with a knife he had purchased for that purpose. In his version, Nattie is in on the murder, while Nattie claims he was completely innocent. The damage done to Robert’s psyche by his love of penny dreadfuls was a large part of his trial, much as video nasties/computer games/listening to Marilyn Manson have loomed large in modern cases. The shape of Robert’s skull is analysed, to assess if he fits Lombroso’s criminal type, as outlined by vogueish ‘science’. The focuses of the trial, the press coverage, the societal fallout tell us as much about Victorian society and its attitudes to childhood and criminality as they do about the ‘wicked boy’ whose motive for matricide is never uncovered.

This is as good a place as any to admit I am a big Kate Summerscale fan. Her books set the historical scene perfectly, and her latest is no exception. Small social interest details are used to give a clear picture of the setting but are never extraneous to the plot – for example, a long drought had impacted on sanitation, which meant that West Ham was unusually noxious at the time of the crime, which in turn helps to explain how the stench from the house went unnoticed. A story this salacious would be front page news now, so to get some idea of the level of fascination in the area at the time she informs us: Continue reading “The Wicked Boy – book review”