Saturday, March 27, 2010

Warrior Women by Jeannine Davis-Kimball **

Do you fear that if women didn't ride side-by-side with Attila the Hun that women will never achieve equality in the 21st century? If so, Warrior Women by Jeannine Davis-Kimball settles the question. As a PhD archaeologist, Dr. Davis-Kimball traces the exploits of 'women of power' in their roles as warrior, ruler, and priestess, as they exercise power through the control of wealth, communities and armies - in the way that only an academic can - that is with plenty of footnotes and references and little in the way of an interesting narrative.

But dull does not mean uninteresting. For example: the roots of the mother goddess, the matriarchy, and sexual equality go back to the pastoralists of the Asian steppes (a word derived fro the Russian word for prairie). This hard life left little room for any form of dependency. Everyone was equal and even today these societies (in Mongolia, western China, and the Russian steppes) are examples of shared rights and responsibilities. These sturdy people are certainly the origin of the Amazon myths.

However, remember that the Amazon myths are not the best source for information because they were written by the Greeks (Athenians). The Athenians may have invented democracy, but that was only democracy for men. Women in Athens were confined to the house both intellectually and physically. This led to another stark difference between Athens and Sparta. While Sparta might leave a weak male baby on the mountainside to die, they valued women and gave them all the benefits left leave their female babies on the mountainsides, for women were of little value in Athens. During their miserable lives, they did not participate in any of the glory of the city, but subsisted on poor diets, little recreation, and no education, and those were the wives of the rich.

If you like your facts straight and your ducks in a line, and your feet noted, this is the book for you.

However, if you demand your prehistoric feminism to be readable and engaging, try one of my all-time favorites: Women's Work...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson et al *****

Which transgression is punishable by lynching? Looking at a white woman? Asking for a job? Return a bottle for the deposit? Discussing the future? Answer: All of the above.

What is lynching? Hanging? Beating? Whipping? Mutilation? Before an audience of women and children? Before your family? Answer: All of the above.

Alex Cross's TRIAL by James Patterson (and Richard Dilallo) follows Ben Corbett, a Harvard-educated, Yankee lawyer who returns to his small, dirt-poor hometown in Mississippi to investigate the officially non-existent crime of lynching. In this thriller, Ben Corbett discovers more brutality and violence than I'd like to see in a novel, much less imagine in real life.

Mark Twain wrote that a single brave man could stop a lynch mob (here) and throughout this book we meet several brave men and women: Ben Corbett, of course. An black healer, Aunt Henry. L.J. Stringer, a rich inventor. Moody Cross, a wise teenage girl. Throughout the book, like Mark Twain, we hope that there are enough brave folk to stop the lynching. Hope, bury another lynching victim, and turn the page, keep hoping.

As a child of the Civil Rights movement, I didn't think I needed a reminder of the brutality of the 100 years following the Civil War, but maybe I did. No easy answers here, but great reading regardless.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hollywood Buzz by Margit Lewis *

When a famous director lifts Pucci Lewis's chin to examine her profile, she shoves his hand away, but when Hollywood Buzz author Margit Liesche manipulates her as a crude prop through a history of the WASPs in WWII, she distracts herself examining male physiques being "struck once more by ... strong and handsome features."

Hollywood Buzz has all the makings of a wonderful historical mystery. Pucci Lewis is a pilot, with an FBI recommendation as an "ace operative," and has feminist sensibilities everyone like to imagine were rampant during WWII. The plot includes a mystery murder attempt on a WASP pilot who survives in a coma, and subplots to manipulate the male Hollywood establishment to show the WASP pilots in a more "professional" way, not:
"The camera angle dropped and focused on the backside of an inductee whose strut emphasized the rhythmic bouncing of her parachute bustle."
As embarrassing as this might have been to Pucci as the only woman in the audience, her response is measured and technical. In this mechanical way, Pucci is marched through the book, showing little emotion other than her careful examination of each male character (and there are many).

The consolation is the author's extensive research. Walt Disney designed the Fifinella patch for the WASPs. WASP pilots carried B-4 bags, and were issued .45s when they flew, but had to turn them in as soon as they landed. The book includes a biography of Jackie Cochran, The First Lady in Flight, and a history of the FMPU, First Motion Picture Unit, along with extensive dropping of actor, actress, and movie names.

If you're interested in the history, this is the book for you, but if you're looking for someone to care about, Pucci Lewis, the mechanically feminist spy, will disappoint.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See *****

"When our hair is white, we'll still have our sister love." Shanghai Girls by Lisa See chronicles two sisters from the Rape of Nanking through World War II and the McCarthy era, juxtaposing traditional Chinese values with Hollywood. These two sisters take very different approaches, but are join by their common fate as Chinese and women during a period when both were discriminated against.

This is an historical novel covering a period when China was under attack, first by the Japanese, and after World War II, by the United States. Lisa See's diligent research and vivid characters unfold an emotional story of perseverance and love. I could barely put the book down as the women escape one crisis only to be trapped by the next. This book is a page turner.

This is the second recent review (A Book for Today: Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens by K C Cole) of a book dealing with the McCarthy era. I notice that many baby boomers and certainly the younger cohorts know little about McCarthy, while the rest of us (old folks) see parallels in the 21st century. While McCarthy is just a small part of this wonderful book, it does provide an added plus by reiterating this sad part of recent American history. These two books remind us that hate and suspicion target people indiscriminately and once unleashed, no one is safe.

Real people, real history, real drama. A book for the heart and the mind.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Redwall by Brian Jacques ***

Redwall by Brian Jacques is a medieval fantasy/adventure for elementary school readers where the good mice defend the abbey from the evil rats - you get the idea. This book (over 20 years in print and still in Amazon's top 10,000 - the U.S. alone publishes over 250,000 new title a year) brings me back to my elementary school year.

As a dyslexic child in the 1950s I wasn't tested, I didn't have an IEP, there were no accommodations or modifications ... I was just shuffled into the back of the room with the other slow readers. Thus, I began my journey as a non-reader through the educational system. I never read any children's books beyond Dr. Seuss, so now I periodically read them both out of curiosity and to know what my students are reading in the classes where I sub.

Unfortunately I fear I'm past the prepubescent age-of-innocence and find these books too predictable and boring. I just can't get involved with quests for lost swords and battles between chivalrous mice and ill-mannered rats. This might not seem like much of a problem, except having missed what I believe is the critical age to acquire an interest in fantasy, I now find the adult fantasies such as LOTR similarly soporific.

I don't recommend this to people who missed the fantasy window during their childhood years, but from my visits to elementary schools I believe it is still an excellent choice for young readers with the added bonus that if this book is found tasty, there is a seemingless endless collection of sequels.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer *****

Grandmothers: Tell your granddaughters about women liberation. Not feminism! Not gender studies! LIBERATION! If you're not a grandmother, read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. Published in 1970, by a recent PhD graduate of Cambridge University, this book lays the groundwork of a radical revolution and documents a society that, though just 40 years ago, will seem like ancient history to contemporary young women.

Warnings: First, the history, exhaustively documented by an academic researcher, is depressing. It is also exhilarating as it dramatizes how much progress has been made. Second, the narrative is often about sex, not gender, sex. If you squeamish about explicit discussions of the mechanics and emotions of sex, best to skip this book.

The book is divided into five sections: Body, Soul, Love, Hate, and Rebellion with chapters such as: The Wicked Womb, Woman Power, The Middle-class Myth of Love and Marriage, and Abuse. The language and sentiment is both academic and raw. I found it best to read just a few pages are a time. Different sections produced nightmares in the present and flashbacks to the turbulent and forgotten sixties.

If you ever found yourself wondering "What's the big fuss about?" this book has the answers. If you think those sixties bra burners were deranged crazies, this book might change your opinion. If you're comfortable with your role in society and like your self-satisfied complacency, don't read this book.

Postscript: Is this a genuine historical document? Yes! The copy on my bookshelf contained a 3x5 card with a handwritten recipe for granola. If there is enough interest, I can post the recipe.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire *****

In school across California from elementary to college, students study the multi-cultural, international diversity of the Cinderella story. So why would anyone write another? Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is just that. His Cinderella set in 17th century Holland with Rembrandt, plague, and tulip mania.

While the setting is fascinating, the characters of the three sisters, the wicked step-mothers, and the prince offer a rich and rewarding interpretation of these classic roles. Cinderella is redrawn more innocent and generous and than self-obsessed victim of tradition. The two step-sisters are also re-imagined: one to be a mute freak, and the other, the protagonist, to be alert and talented, and the real victim of the evil step-mother (who is both evil and sympathetic).

This is a coming-of-age story, as the three sisters move from childhood to maturity, and the parents move to old age and death - an engaging novel that leaves the happily-ever-after fairy tale and 17th century Europe behind to tell a story of how different people respond to challenge and circumstance.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ho for California edited by Sandra L Myers ***

Ho for California! (originally titled in 1980) collects women's journals from the trek across the United States to California. While, readers might hope for a unique women's view of the trip, the overwhelming message is that all travelers were reduced to their common humanity where survival had priority over sex and age. Even the death of a baby is reported in a single declarative sentence and most of the writing is about the need for water and grass.

Perhaps the women were slightly less prone to violence when threatened by native Americans, but this is not because of some sympathy for fellow human beings, but rather because of enlightened self-interest the realization that the travelers are outnumbered and killing one today may bring bigger bands of attackers tomorrow. In the end there were few attacks along the trails and most involved petty theft and not mortal combat.

There was one feminist observation along the southern route where survival was much easier and the pace more relaxed. Noticing a band of Indians, Harriet Bunyard observed, "How detestable they are. All the men riding and the women walking and carrying all the load."

On excellent primary source on the period.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens by K C Cole *****

Hippie creates atomic bomb, or is it atomic bomb creates hippie? In Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, K C Cole traces Frank Oppenheimer's life from the Manhattan Project to exile on a Colorado Ranch to the world famous Exploratorium. After working as an atomic physicist during World War II and helping to create the atomic bomb, Frank Oppenheimer falls prey to McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). The FBI tailed him for years and his was blackballed from all university, military and government research. Not easily discouraged, he moved to Colorado, ran a ranch and taught science in a rural high school.

But the real story is the San Francisco Exploratorium, the original science museum and still the inspiration for all those hands-on science and technology museums around the world. Much like a science fiction story, when the Exploratorium was founded in 1969 it was a window on the future. Frank Oppenheimer's management style, seemingly reflecting hippie culture, though more respectably credited to research labs, was egalitarian and chaotic. Later much of his approach was popularized by Hewlitt-Packard and called MBWA (Management by Walking Around).
In the 21st century both business and fiction see the future as being user-generated content - the next new thing. However, when the Exploratorium opened in the 1970s (pre-Internet), this science museum encouraged exhibits brought in by museum patrons. Anyone with a good idea could bring it to the Exploratorium and users were even encouraged to modify existing exhibits, not unlike Cory Doctorow's imaginings in Maker.

I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest the 50s and 60s. The view into the culture of these important decades is both unique and enlightening.

My only complaint is that the author, K C Cole, is too much in the story. Her life is a dull detail in the life of Frank Oppenheimer and many of the slow sections focus on K C Cole instead the main character. In my mind, an even more egregious faut pas is when K C Cole pads the story with her old columns on the philosophy of science. However, the story of Frank Oppenheimer is so interesting, I gladly plowed through the boring parts to read the life of one of the great people of my lifetime.