Archive for December, 2013

December 28, 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I came to this book expecting very little. Gilbert’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don’t think my prejudice was entirely unjustified. And the weakest section of this new book is definitely the bit where our heroine travels to Tahiti and discovers that the locals are very different from 19th Century Americans (and also keep stealing her stuff). I think a good general rule might be for Gilbert not to write about white women travelling to other parts of the world.

But it’s also kind of fantastic on some other things.

From this week’s column:



An unintentional theme of my reading this year has been that of women who are absorbed (even obsessed) by their work. It’s telling that this is a rare enough theme for fiction that it should strike one as unusual—I don’t think I’d particularly notice a book about a man with a similar obsession. But we’re less willing to allow women single-minded dedication than we are men; the constraints of family and society and such a basic thing as space so often get in the way. None of this is particularly original; for one thing it’s all in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

But earlier this year I read (and wrote about in this column) Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, in which Lady Trent manages to defy convention and pursue her fascination with dragons in a world where fantastic beasts are real but so are eighteenth-century gender roles. And Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, whose elderly artists’ work and love are deeply intertwined. I also reread Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Gaudy Night, which is entirely concerned with the idea that women may find vocations other than marriage and family to which to dedicate the whole of their lives.

And then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, the biography of a (fictional) woman botanist in the nineteenth century. Alma Whittaker is born into a household fascinated by botany, and has a genius for taxonomy. Eventually she chooses to make moss the focus of her life’s study, and through the lens that her specialization provides her, comes up with a larger theory of how nature works.

It’s tempting to go back to Virginia Woolf here. Woolf invents Judith Shakespeare, fictional sister to William, who has all of her brother’s inventiveness but none of his opportunities. No school, no time or place to work uninterrupted by family, a forced marriage and eventual suicide; all of these circumstances prevent Judith from writing the plays she might have done. No woman, Woolf concludes, could have written Shakespeare’s plays in the age of Shakespeare.

Perhaps no woman could have written Darwin’s work in the age of Darwin. Gilbert acknowledges Alma’s genius, but far more important to her career are the circumstances in which she is born. Her father is rich, having made a fortune growing and trading medicinal plants. Her mother is from a botanical family, is well-educated, and believes in the importance of an education. Alma is given an entire building in which to work and all the funds and encouragement she needs. Almost as important, perhaps, is the fact that she’s not conventionally pretty; at various points in the book she is attracted to men she knows, and it’s easy to imagine her life going very differently had one of them returned her feelings. Married women in the nineteenth century rarely had the opportunity to write treatises on moss and natural philosophy; nor did they get the chance to leave all their worldly possessions and set sail for Tahiti in middle age.

In the event Alma never publishes her great work, though various people urge her to do so. Presumably this is partly to do with the constraints of the historical novel, which cannot too drastically change the past. But I wonder if it’s also for reasons to do with her gender. For years she refuses to publish until one minor doubt has been cleared. Later she discovers that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace (who independently arrived at a theory of evolution and who appears in this novel) had a solution either, but this did not stop them from publishing their work and being recognized as among the great scientists of their age.

Alma’s single-mindedness and privileged status often combine to make her particularly bad at relationships with other people, and this is one of the things that makes her work as a character. She’s flawed and frequently unhappy, but she does great work and loves it. Gilbert in her acknowledgements quotes Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. “I will give you plenty of examples”, says de Pizan of the great women with whom she builds her feminist argument. Gilbert provides us with one.


December 23, 2013


I’m refusing to make any proper “best of 2013″ lists until at least January (if then) but here I am at The Booksmugglers’ blog talking about some of the best translated works I read this year. Of the three books I chose to talk about, only one was published (in translation) in 2013. I didn’t read nearly as much work in translation as I’d have liked to this year–I know of a number of works that I missed out on from India alone–so consider this post a plea for recommendations as well.

December 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Catching Fire

I watched three movies in one week recently. This was one of them.


  • I remember so little of the books beyond basic plot that I find it difficult to be sure how far the things that are wrong with the film (there is a lot right with the film though) are also things that are wrong with the book. I’m not a fan of criticisms that excuse the film based on the book’s flaws though–particularly since I get the feeling that the biggest problem could quite easily have been fixed without too great a deviation from the book’s plot.
  • That biggest problem is this–that this is a series of three books about violent revolution told from the perspective of someone who remains unaware of said revolution (that her own actions exist within that context) until the end of the second book. It’s less glaring in the first book and movie, in part because we don’t know much about this wider context either. But one of the things the first movie did well, I thought, was to fully utilise its shift from the first to the third person and allow us to see things Katniss couldn’t. The second movie rarely does this; it seems that one of its strategies is to keep us as innocent as Katniss is.
  • Katniss’s innocence/moral purity/something is another interesting point. One of the complaints I had when I read the first book (and I saw many people say the same of the first movie) is the way in which, despite the awful circumstances she’s put in, Katniss never has to make a morally difficult choice. All the people she has to kill are presented not only as trying to kill her (it’s the Hunger Games, it’s not like they have a choice) but as fundamentally bad as well. ‘Good’ people who might have posed a challenge (Rue, whom she befriends and Thresh, who saves her life) are conveniently killed off by bad people. Catching Fire takes this and makes it a plot point–suddenly there’s an entire set of characters invested in making sure that Katniss never has to do anything that would make her morally grey, since apparently this would compromise her status as a symbol. (Which, Collins seems to suggest, would seriously compromise the revolution? I’m no expert on revolutions, but I have my doubts–but sure, let’s assume this to be fact.) I find this fascinating, because it’s as if we’re asked, in the second movie (and book? I can’t really remember), to notice something that feels like a clear flaw in the first book-and-movie.
  • That absolutely wonderful, believable moment where Katniss says no, really, she hasn’t got time to think about love because awful things have happened and she’s dealing with those.
  • YA gets a lot of flack for its love triangles (though I really don’t see that many in the YA I read) but this trilogy’s general treatment of romance is a lot more complex than it gets credit for. Love can be part performative, is at least partly voluntary, is ultimately part disposable. People can have no time for it, people can choose the relationships that won’t destroy them. Obviously there’s an element of wish-fulfillment in the fact that Katniss gets to do all of these things while two attractive men are pining for her, but why not?
  • This is connected to a general, practical heartlessness that we see glimpses of and that I adore. Think of Katniss calmly telling Haymitch that she wants him to volunteer (and therefore probably die) in Peeta’s place.
  • I do like that Peeta’s the stronger one in the political arena.
  • Finnick is Aquaman.
  • Perhaps it’s old age or general callousness or the sheer numbers involved, but I find it hard to care about the characters in the arena once I’m aware of what’s happening outside it. I went in expecting to cry quite a lot (I cry at all movies–I once managed to cry at Legally Blonde) and warned the friend with whom I was watching. He was a little confused, therefore, when I spent most of the time snickering at the pure evil being inflicted upon our heroes by the Capitol. I did get a bit teary at the early scene in District 11, but once that was over it was hard to feel very strongly about Katniss and Peeta and their struggle for survival.
  • In an early scene, Katniss is unable to shoot a turkey without having a traumatic flashback to her time in the arena. A couple of weeks later (we haven’t seen her shooting at all in the interim), when she’s training for the games, she’s fine. I can think of multiple reasons for this, but the movie chooses to visit none of them.
  • Didn’t Kristen Bell want to be Johanna?
  • Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket was one of my favourite things about this movie and I’m hoping that the next two movies are as ambivalent about her as I remember the books being.
  • I suspect that when I have few thoughts about a movie this whole bulletpoint format just highlights that fact and makes me look bad. Oh well.
  • Edit: It strikes me that a useful way of reading the trilogy (I’m sure someone’s done it properly by now) is as a progressive widening of perspective; beginning with Katniss’ very individual sense of grievance against the state, moving to the wider political ramifications of the games (beyond the ways in which they compromise Katniss’ selfhood, which is the driving force behind her rebellion in the first book), realising (as the audience also gradually realises) that other people have subjectivities, that Gale’s involved in rebellion as well as pining for her, that Prim has capabilities other than being saved, and so onward and outward to the events of the third book.
December 19, 2013

Nicola Griffith, Hild

From this weekend’s column.

One of the many pleasing things about Hild is that large parts of it are set quite near where I am now (or it feels that way–England isn’t very big). It is possible that I highlighted those bits in my ebook with such incisive critical comments as “represent!”



Is it still a biography when an entire book must be extrapolated from mere scraps of detail? That’s about all we know of the woman who would come to be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby; a few, scant details in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We know that her father was a nephew of Edwin of Northumbria and that he was poisoned, that she was baptized by Paulinus of York, and that twenty years later she became a nun, eventually becoming the abbess of a monastery at Whitby. It’s not much to go on, yet Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a novel of close to 600 pages and it ends decades before the most well-documented part of Saint Hilda’s life.

So if it’s not biography is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Griffith is known mainly as a science fiction writer, and she has claimed elsewhere that in creating this book she drew on techniques learned from that genre. The world of Hild is meticulously built up from what we know of the material and social culture of its time; it is remote enough from our own world to seem completely alien (there have been few popular culture narratives of the early middle ages to familiarise them), yet it makes complete sense.

Griffith’s Hild is the clever daughter of a clever mother, taught from her youngest days to observe (“quiet mouth, bright mind,” her mother Breguswith’s constant advice to her). Breguswith claims to have foretold her daughter’s greatness, and from the beginning of her life Hild is believed to have supernatural powers. Whether her gift for seeing “the pattern” in things is divine in origin is both unclear and irrelevant; she becomes a valued advisor to Edwin. As her friend, an Irish priest, tells her, her mother has carved out for her a space inaccessible to many women in her circumstances; she’s in a position to speak and be listened to, to influence the larger political, social, economic changes taking place around her in ways other than through strategic marriage alliances.

And women and women’s work are at the centre of Hild. In the court both Hild and her mother subtly work to influence events, as does Edwin’s wife Æthelburg. But we also see women weaving cloth, doing manual labour, trading, tending to cattle, brewing mead and creating medicine. History, and historical fiction, often tend to treat as important only the more masculine spheres of activity. Here, battles are fought but we only see them when Hild is present at them. The political life of the court may be dominated by men, but a few powerful women are always present. And the centrality of women to this society, particularly their economic contribution, is never ignored or dismissed. Female friendship is elevated in the form of gemæcce, a sort of formalised partnership between two women. Women are free to have sex, with men or with other women (one of many striking dissimilarities between this seventh century Britain and twenty-first century India), without anyone seeming particularly surprised.

Perhaps Griffith’s greatest achievement here is in not giving Hild a modern mind. She may, as a result of her gift or her mother’s training, know more than most of those around her and she may manipulate events, but if she can discern the “pattern” of her world she’s rarely placed above or outside it. Other than one rather too pat moment when she describes Christ as merely another name for the pattern (religion until this point in the novel has worked in marvellous, complex ways), she thinks as a person raised in her world.

Hild is immersive and feminist, and believable. Whether this is historical fiction or fantasy (and Griffith suggests that perhaps there needn’t be a distinction between the two) it’s complex and intelligent.


December 14, 2013

Jean Yves-Ferri and Didier Conrad, Asterix and the Picts


From a column a couple of weekends ago. I didn’t dislike Asterix and the Picts, but it isn’t particularly good.



For those of us who grew up with Anthea Bell’s translations of the Asterix comics, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they are translations. The English versions are rich in allusion and wordplay, and I like to believe they were at least partly responsible for making my younger self love English and its potential—it’s amazing to think that they weren’t even written in the language they taught me to love.

It’s when we’re reading the books about other nations that the French-ness of the Asterix comics becomes particularly interesting. Which national stereotypes cross borders and which do not, which are added and subtracted in translation? Asterix in Britain, for example, gives us British people who are terribly polite, drink warm beer, boil all their food into oblivion (before serving it with mint sauce), travel in double-decker buses, play violent sports, and insist on stopping work at tea time, before tea has even been invented yet.

And then there’s the latest, Asterix and the Picts, the first book in the series to be written neither by Goscinny or Uderzo. A large young man in a kilt is washed up on the shore near the Gaulish village; our heroes undertake to join him on his journey home, help him defeat the evil leader of a rival clan, and rescue the woman he loves.

So what Scottish stereotypes have made it into French? My own French isn’t quite good enough to answer that. But at least in the English translation (by Bell—at least some things remain unchanged) their names all begin with “Mac”; they occasionally burst into “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond”, and they drink a lot of whiskey. They also all have red hair, wear kilts, like to toss the caber and have a part-worshipful, part-fond relationship with a rather gormless looking monster in the lake—named Nessie, obviously. Haggis is not mentioned and nor are fried Mars bars, though there is some focus on some very good salmon. More bafflingly, authors Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad have resisted the temptation to make any Macbeth jokes, though there is a stray quote from Hamlet floating around.

There’s a sub-genre of romance novels in which men from Scotland are depicted as strong, taciturn, soulful, kilt-wearing creatures, often with mystical powers. I suspect that these books, at least, have transcended linguistic boundaries—the early sections of Asterix and the Picts have the Gaulish women thoroughly objectifying poor Macaroon (not Bell’s finest bit of naming, alas), making up romantic stories about his sweetheart up North, and pressuring their menfolk to adopt the kilt (Unhygienix, we find, doesn’t think he has the knees to pull it off). One gets the feeling Impedimenta and Bacteria are familiar with the conventions of the romance (as, presumably, are Ferri and Conrad). Macaroon is big, not very bright, and good at punching things, but he takes little part in the subsequent violence—in one scene, as various clans of Picts fight each other and Obelix singlehandedly takes on all the Romans, Macaroon stands in the middle of the battlefield, oblivious to anything but Camomilla, his lady love. It’s Camomilla herself who drinks some magic potion (largely absent for most of this book) and throws the decisive punch at a villain who looks suspiciously like Vincent Cassel.

Occasionally subversive gender politics aside (I’m not sure why all the Pictish women seem to have a special pink tartan, but I’m choosing to believe it’s a gesture of inter-tribal solidarity), Asterix and the Picts feels oddly inconsequential. It’s loosely plotted, and lacking in most of the laugh out loud cleverness of earlier volumes in the series. No one has quite managed to replace René Goscinny. On the other hand, the art is as familiar, and as packed with detail, as ever. Reading 2005’s Asterix and the Falling Sky one felt that Uderzo was attempting at something completely different; this feels like an Asterix comic, if one of the weaker ones.


December 8, 2013

November Reading

It’s December, and the only way I’m going to get through a fraction of the reading I wanted to have done by the end of the year is if I read a book a day (I’m not counting things I read for academic purposes, which are supposed to take up most of my day anyway). I am not impressed with myself this year. But here are the few things I managed to read in November.


Nicholas Blake, Malice in Wonderland: Still not great at women-who-aren’t-Georgia, still pretty good at everything else. Far from the best of the Strangeways books, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance: I wrote about this here, though I think it could use some more writing-about.

Ali Smith, The Accidental: This talk was a good excuse for a reread. I don’t think it’s my favourite thing by Smith (who is lovely, and who recognised “the girls who have the blog” and who now, to my horror, knows that this blog exists) but I was glad to reread it as an adult.

Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam: Weak in ways that really upset me. I don’t think I’ll be reviewing, or even generally talking about this one.

Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl, Attachments: So Rowell’s written teenagers in the 80s (Eleanor & Park, which I wrote about last month), new adults in the 2000s and people-my-age in the 90s. Fangirl  did nothing for me; it’s very familiar (I too went to college at the height of Harry Potter’s popularity, I had friends who wrote fic that mattered to a lot of people, I read a lot of fanfic both then and now), but that wasn’t enough for me to feel particularly affected by it. Attachments did a better job of its characters but I think it wrote itself into a bit of a corner–having based its entire premise on a pretty awful violation of privacy, and an acknowledgement of how awful said violation is (I’ve read books that would skip over this and hope we wouldn’t notice) it jumps to a happily ever after that feels hurried and unearned–the heroine’s (rightful) anger is mentioned, but never worked through and I can’t imagine it not coming back to sabotage this relationship.

Tove Jansson, Fair Play: Perfect.

Shimon Adaf, Sunburnt Faces: This is a difficult book to talk about–as Adam Roberts says in this review, it’s really not like anything else. But its people are difficult, they have real, ordinary lives, and occasionally things happen that are … bigger than ordinary life. I’m doing a terrible job of this, and I think I’ll have to go back to the book before I can say anything worthwhile about it, but it’s rough and powerful and kind of amazing.

Susan Elizabeth Philips, Call Me Irresistable, Match Me If You Can, The Great Escape: Read a bunch of SEP romance novels, don’t remember much about them except that The Great Escape (all of whose adult characters are white) is Really Concerned with the correct ways to talk about race.

Bennett Madison, September Girls: I’ve been wanting to read this for months and I’m glad I finally did. It does clever, clever things with The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Anderson and Disney), and with constructed gender, and beauty, and masculinity, and turns male virginity into a plot point, and it just really pleased me. What I’d like now is for someone to read it alongside Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts; I think something wonderful might come of this.

Patrick Ness, More Than This: Mixed feelings about this one. I think it starts out with a good premise, and Ness is great on teenage feelings (though I’d have been happier if the bisexual who has sex with multiple people and breaks their hearts was at least a pov character). And I think there’s a lot to be said about how the book deals with narrative, both in the ways its structure allows for a dipping in and out of plot, and in its very narrative-aware protagonist. But the science fiction plot (which is one of a couple of explanations the book offers of itself) felt really week, and its alternative felt underdeveloped. Mixed feelings, as I said.

Jean Yves-Ferri and Didier Conrad, Asterix and the Picts: It feels more Asterix-y than Asterix and the Falling Sky? But I didn’t think this was great.

David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: Resounding meh.

Julia Quinn, The Sum of All Kisses: Has a heroine who is holding a grudge that feels more annoying than sympathy-arousing, and a maths-genius hero whose genius we really don’t see enough of. But it’s Julia Quinn, so it’s generally likeable and warm and full of big loving families (not counting the hero’s dad, who is obviously vile and a big part of why this book doesn’t really work that well) and safe in ways escapist fiction is allowed to be.