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Review: The Last Wish

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated by Danusia Stok
The Witcher #1

Orbit 2007 (1993)
Mass Market Paperback
359 pages
Fantasy



I won’t lie, I absolutely read this because I wanted to watch the new Netflix adaptation. A long time ago, pretty much the only books I ever read were fantasy novels – especially in my teens and early 20s. So I’ve read quite a lot of them, and wrote my Honours dissertation on the genre; it’s very much like coming home, reading a fantasy novel now. While I knew The Witcher was a popular video game (also adapted from the books), I can’t speak for it or compare it as I’ve never played it.

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a lone warrior with an impressive skill set who travels around the many kingdoms, looking for monsters to kill in exchange for money from whoever will pay. Trained from a very young age and augmented, he is now considered a mutant who can use some magical Signs in his work but who isn’t a sorcerer or anything of the kind. He’s a taciturn individual committed to his trade and the Witcher code, right to the point of arguing with powerful monarchs about it. He has two friends, in this book: Dandilion the bard and poet, and Nanneke, a priestess whom he visits when injured (and possibly at other times, when he’s passing by? It’s not clear). He’s also been in a serious relationship with a sorceress called Yennefer, but he left because, in his words, she was too “clingy”.

The novel is actually a collection of shorter adventures, re-workings and adaptations of familiar fairy-tales such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rapunzel (these two are worked into the same story together) and Beauty and the Beast. Between each is a continuous storyline in which Geralt is taking shelter at a temple, tended to by Nanneke, after he is injured in a fight with a striga. Some of the stories work as flashbacks as he’s talking to Nanneke. Geralt’s adventures are enjoyable, entertaining and fairly fast-paced, with plenty of blood and gore and violence (you can see why it made such a good video game – gosh I am a cynic!). My first impression, that this was a work of Fantasy-Horror, didn’t really stick: the horror elements weren’t pronounced, though the element of danger is always present.

But I have to discuss my pet peeve about fantasy fiction (anyone who’s read my review of the first Game of Thrones book will be familiar with this): the casual sexism and blatant misogyny – yes, both – that some authors write into fantasy without much conscious thought. Such is the extent to which it is normalised in western culture (including Poland, where the author is from). I’ve had people argue with me on this, insisting that it’s true to the medieval, feudal European setting. Sure, yes, it is. But these stories are not set in medieval Europe, are they? What they actually do is reflect, normalise and further embed the patriarchal status quo. It’s fantasy: you can create new settings, inspired by medieval Europe sure, but the author is in control. The Last Wish is riddled with offhand comments on girls and women, everything from the barmaid’s bottom being pinched as she works to the idea of women being vessels for disorder and deceit.

When women are strong and fearless, they are dangerous and must be stopped. Their deeds are described as heinous, evil aberrations. When they are weak and/or ugly, they are barely noticeable. When they are in positions of power, such as the queen of Cintra, Calanthe, she comes across as difficult and out-of-her-depth. One of the first stories is about Renfri, a girl born during an eclipse and considered mutated and cursed. All 60 girls born that day were either killed or locked into towers because they were prophesied to bring about doom and death. Renfri escaped (the Snow White story) and, after forming a band of outlaws (the ‘dwarfs’), goes on a mission of revenge against the wizard who tried to kill her so many times. It is an interesting story about evil, and the idea of a lesser evil, but it ends with Geralt killing Renfri and then, possibly, regretting it. So this strong, resourceful woman (my interpretation) is snuffed out, all so Geralt could grow as a man.

It is the classic plurality: in Western culture, women are either innocent virgins or alluring femme fatales who lead men astray (Eve in the Garden of Eden) and must be punished. Women are horribly simplified in The Last Wish and serve as little more than objects for the male gaze.

Unlike priestesses and druidesses, who only unwillingly took ugly or crippled girls, sorcerers took anyone who showed evidence of a predisposition. If the child passed the first years of training, magic entered into the equation – straightening and evening out legs, repairing bones which had badly knitted, patching hairlips, removing scars, birthmarks and pox scars. The young sorceress would become attractive because the prestige of her profession demanded it. The result was pseudo-pretty women with the angry and cold eyes of ugly girls. Girls who couldn’t forget their ugliness had been covered by the mask of magic only for the prestige of their profession. [pp.302-3]

There’s an opportunity, here, to invert the casual sexism and do something fresh and liberating, but Sapkowski isn’t interested in that. His women are pretty straight-forward creatures (and his men aren’t much better).

Did I enjoy The Last Wish? Sure, because there’s plenty here to enjoy, even if it lacked a central plot to bind it all together (they’ve fixed this for the TV series, I noticed). I just have to let slide all the sexism but that’s not difficult, women have been doing that for centuries.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2020


It’s been several years since I joined a reading challenge, mostly because I haven’t had the time to dedicate to my blog that I used to have, sadly. At the start of every year I hope to change that, unsuccessfully so far. Maybe 2020 will be the year of resurrecting the blog? So I’m excited to join Shelleyrae’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge, hosted on her blog, Book’d Out.

Regardless, I do love reading nonfiction and have oodles of great books on my shelves, waiting to be read. They usually take me longer than fiction because I need to concentrate more, and interruptions are the death of them because I lose the train of thought and information – easier by far to come back to a work of fiction after having to put it down for a while. And with my job – teaching – that happens far too often.

This challenge is simple and motivating. Running all year, you have 12 categories to choose from, depending on your level (read 3, 6 or 12 books). The categories are:
1. Memoir
2. Disaster Event
3. Social Science
4. Related to an Occupation
5. History
6. Feminism
7. Psychology
8. Medical Issue
9. Nature
10. True Crime
11. Science
12. Published in 2020

Some of these categories I just don’t read (true crime and disaster event, in particular), so either I’ll break out of my comfort zone or I won’t be achieving “Nonfiction Know-it-all” status! I’ll aim for “Nonfiction Nipper” (3 books) to start, see how I go and, if I’m feeling confident, stretch myself to “Nonfiction Nibbler” (6 books). Wish me luck!

Review: Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
HarperPerennial 2010
Paperback
204 pages
Non-fiction; Popular Culture; Sociology; History; Film & Entertainment; Biography



From the blurb: ‘Audrey Hepburn is an icon like no other, yet the image many of us have of Hepburn – dainty, immaculate – is anything but true to life. Here, for the first time, Sam Wasson presents the woman behind the little black dress that rocked the nation in 1961. With a colourful cast of characters including Truman Capote, Edith Head, Givenchy, “Moon River” composer Henry Mancini and, of course, Hepburn herself, Wasson immerses us in the America of the early sixties before Woodstock and birth control, when a not-so-virginal girl by the name of Holly Golightly raised eyebrows across the country, changing fashion, film and sex for good.’

This book is an absolute delight! I bought a copy because I’m going to be teaching the novella and film in the Adaptation Study module; it’s proved to be not only an excellent source for teaching the adaptation but a highly entertaining read in its own right. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that.

Wasson writes with a light, humorous touch but never sounds like he’s gossiping. The book covers all facets of the making of the film, from the author himself and the inspiration for the character of Holly Golightly, to the difficulties of shooting a scene inside Tiffany’s itself. Wasson details how Audrey got into acting (via Colette and Gigi), her difficulties in creating a family, and why she didn’t want to play the role of Holly. Hepburn’s marriage to actor-director Mel Ferrer, a man who is described by many as controlling and who would criticise Audrey in public, fills in the background to the film production – in true historian style, Wasson never explicitly judges but lays out witness accounts and details from other sources, laying bare both the truth of the relationship as well as Audrey’s own flaws.

As fascinating and enjoyable as it is to read about the making of the film itself, it was the cultural context aspect that really lifted this book into one of intelligent insight. Wasson explains how Hollywood stars are made into “saleable commodities” no matter their talent. They were “built, not born” [p.19]. “To foster that desirability, studios manufactured stars to suit the fears and fantasies of the day, giving faces to paradigm shifts, and therefore historical consequence to their chosen personae. […] American moviegoers have been devouring a steady dosage of self-image.” [pp.20-1] For women, Wasson explains, there were only two choices for actors: you were either a slut or a saint. For Audrey Hepburn, the ultimate “good girl”, to play a promiscuous socialite whom some call a “hooker” (including Audrey herself, after she read the script), a new type of heroine was born, one who was good but flawed. Independent yet somehow still wholesome, because it was Audrey. “What Audrey offered – namely to the girls – was a glimpse of someone who lived by her own code of interests, not her mother’s, and who did so with a wholesome independence of spirit.” [p.23] Such a woman had never been seen on the ‘silver screen’ before.

And then there is the context of the American housewife of the 1950s. After the war, Wasson writes, “the entire country, it seemed, was on vacation. […] The task now was to forget, or at least deny [the horrors of the war].” [p.16] Alcohol, drugs and entertainment were the main options. For women, suddenly and forcibly removed from the jobs they had competently and successfully managed while the men were at war, marriage was also a “tonic” against anxiety. Gender lines “had to be reinstated and the American woman found herself alone at the sink, wondering how it all happened.” [p.17] Television was a balm, with little portable sets that could be carried throughout the house, wherever chores needed to be done. And everything on the TV was a message written and packaged by men. The result: “the fifties woman was the single most vulnerable woman in American history to the grasp of prefab wholesale thought, and by extension, to the men who made it. The message of conformity poured in through every opening from the outside, making it impossible for her to shut it out without shutting out the world.” [p.18] This was the key market for films, the bored housewife, and Audrey Hepburn was the perfect actress: she was eye candy for the husbands but didn’t alienate the wives.

The main changes made by scriptwriter George Axelrod are, if I’m to be honest, the very things I like about Capote’s novella – and yet I still enjoy the film. “He took out Capote’s brittle edge and replaced it with soft-focus pluck. Out went the bitchy exchanges between Holly and Mag Wildwood. Out went her illegitimate pregnancy and miscarriage. Out went the scene when she saves the narrator from a rogue horse and out went her flight to Brazil with Jose and eventual disappearance in Africa. Anything of the know-how and resilience Capote instilled in his heroine was now out of step with the new Holly […] Playing up the Tulip, Texas, girl was a good move, strategically speaking; not only did it cater to Audrey’s screen personality, but as a discretionary precaution, it also would help the audience forget that their lead was turning tricks in her spare time.” [p.88-9]

The difficulty of making Breakfast at Tiffany’s into a film was chiefly caused by the censorship board, called the Production Code Administration. Anything sexually explicit was, of course, not allowed, but so was anything sexually implicit. The challenge was to make a film about a call girl that wasn’t about sex. To get past the censors, Axelrod and director Blake Edwards turned Capote’s novella into a romantic comedy with a traditional happy ending – heterosexual marriage – and appeased the censors by changing Capote’s gay narrator into a straight man, albeit one who’s a gigolo. It’s interesting that the platonic friendship and love between the novella’s heroine and narrator was changed into a romance – which leads to sex even if it doesn’t show it – and that’s more acceptable.

But despite all the changes, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly was still a prefeminist role model. When the film came out in 1961, the second wave of feminism was really just a thought bubble, simmering in the wings. There was no contraceptive Pill, no “women’s lib”, no “bra burning”. But here was a woman, Holly, who did things her way, did them for pleasure, and followed her own interests. She proved you could be sophisticated, attractive, chic – and at the end, so agreed many film critics, you didn’t get the sense that the happy-ever-after was an ‘ever after’, that Hepburn and George Peppard’s characters weren’t going to have a lasting marriage. Not what you’d expect from a romance (though part of that impression could be because Hepburn and Peppard hated each other – it’d be hard to have convincing chemistry).

A lot has changed in the decades since Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film, was released. There have been great gains for women’s rights and while there is no single source of these changes, the film helped reshape the idea of what it meant to be a woman in the minds of the average American housewife. This is important, because the average American housewife is the ‘groundswell’ needed for social change. And while the film is still a message by men, packaged by men, it is Audrey Hepburn, so Wasson argues, who delivered a potentially life-altering message to the masses. We might watch the movie now and be less than impressed, but in the context of how rigid, conformist and conservative society was at the time, it really is a breakthrough film.

Sam Wasson, in Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. has done a fantastic job of bringing the making of the film to life. Far from being a dry recount, he recreates conversations, fleshes out real-life historical figures into characters, and structured the book into short scenes within longer acts, so that as you read you get a sense of time and place, of the overlapping nature of events, decisions, conversations – all without becoming confusing or overwhelming. A pleasure to read.

Review: You Will (Probably) Survive

Just when you think parenting a small baby is a painful, lonely slog and you’re riddled with suppressed anxiety about all the things you’re (probably) doing wrong, along comes the wise-cracking You Will (Probably) Survive: and other things they didn’t tell you about motherhood. Lauren Dubois, previously a political journalist, is the author of popular, long-running blog The Thud, has written for several online parenting websites and has a podcast called The Motherhood. But in terms of being an expert, her credentials are the ones you just can’t question: she’s a mother to two small children, with a baby on the way. This is why the cover is so apt: Dubois is depicted in a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ costume and pose, emphasising both the hard, physical labour of growing, birthing and raising a child, and the need to acknowledge women’s strength and to get help in this arduous, never-ending task. The two main messages I got from this book were “you are not alone” and “do what’s right for you”. Other messages – and it’s the type of book where you’ll ‘hear’ the message that you need to hear, because there are loads of potentials – include “Motherhood is a complete lack of control” and “women are bad-ass”. I’m quite fond of that one.

If you have been an avid follower of her blog, some of the content will be familiar; I hadn’t heard of her or her wildly popular blog until this new book popped up on my Instagram feed (I follow the publisher) so the content was all new to me. I’ve also become something of a Lauren Dubois fan: her Instagram feed is always entertaining. She has charisma, intelligence and the funnies, and she’s speaking on a topic that is currently very close to me: parenthood. Specifically, motherhood. ‘Motherhood’ gets maligned quite a bit in our culture, there’s always the whiff of dismissive condescension around mothers that goes way back (and is, no doubt, an important part of the patriarchy). Only other mothers celebrate motherhood, and then not always. It comes with expectations (other people’s and your own), and isn’t considered all that important in the big scheme of things because it doesn’t make money (but capitalism still loves mothers: we buy a lot of shit). Most importantly, for the maligning of motherhood, it’s not considered important enough to interest men – hence why novels about mothers (and there are lots of these) are patronised with the category “women’s fiction”.

This is a book I would love men to read. Just like I would love men to read romance aimed at women – how better to study what women really want than to read such fantasies? Likewise, how better to understand what women go through when they become mothers than to read You Will (Probably) Survive? This isn’t a parenting manual, it doesn’t instruct, it reflects, and Dubois does so with clear insight. There were chapters – particularly “Men can parent too?” and “The mental load” as well as the chapters on gender – that could have been plucked right out of my own head. And because of the conversational style of Dubois’s writing, I was mentally nodding along, going “I know!! Right? Ugh, tell me about it!” throughout. I laughed and I cried, which is really what being a mother is all about: inherent contradiction. While there’s plenty here that I haven’t experienced – my firstborn, as a toddler, had tantrums only twice after learning it at a new daycare, he clearly wasn’t that into it (though these days he can throw a good sulk!) – it’s all so relatable, and you feel like you’re part of a tribe. A tribe that was always there but never really acknowledged. Really, mothers need to get together in non-competitive ways more!

You Will (Probably) Survive is a smooth mix of celebration, astute social commentary and comforting reassurance. It is highly vindicating, and for that alone I would imagine mothers all over would enjoy this book. Dubois gives it to you straight and gets right to the heart of the complicated, contradictory soul of motherhood: that you can fiercely love your child while absolutely hating aspects of motherhood, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, when it comes to being a mother, that’s not actually a contradiction, it’s reality, and Dubois, simply by presenting this reality in her confident, ironic way, gives mothers permission to feel this without guilt. (Not that you can ever escape guilt, as a mother: par for the course). She also taught me about matrescence, and I’m all for society adopting this. Matrescence is a woman’s journey into motherhood, like how children have ‘adolescence’, their journey into adulthood (p.107). Because while you become a mother when your baby is born, “the transition to ‘Mum’ takes a little longer.” (p.106)

When a baby is born, we celebrate the baby. This little life, so new to the world, is loved and cherished by all.

But we don’t celebrate the other birth – the birth of the mother. We don’t gather around and hold that woman in our arms and let her know how special she is and how loved she’ll be through this journey. We don’t comfort and calm her. We don’t even speak to her about this massive change in her life. We just carry on like nothing has happened and expect her to do the same.

But something has happened. Something huge. Something magnificent. Something confusing and isolating – which is bizarre, given it’s so common. Every day, more and more women enter their matrescence and yet most people don’t even know this metamorphosis has a name. (p.107)

Divided into four main sections, Dubois covers pregnancy, newborns, babyhood and the toddler years. There’s a lot about exhaustion, and even more about poo – and the stench of babies’ hands. She covers how’first time mums’ get patronised and reassures with “you are not a moron. You’re not hysterical. […] You deserve a second opinion” (p.151) and not to be gaslighted (gaslit?) by doctors and nurses. There are experiences here that I didn’t have, with either pregnancy (like, I never got ‘linea nigra’), and other things that I was surprised she didn’t mention, like hemorrhoids (from all the pushing). I loved what she wrote about caesarian sections – after an emergency c-section with my first baby, I opted for an elective the second time around and it was no less hard. Dubois acknowledges this in a chapter that made me cry, it was like she’d been there with me and seen how close I came to panicking:

“Being sliced open on a cold table while you’re awake isn’t the fun little procedure you might think it is. It’s not a simple slice, dice and out-comes-the-baby. It’s rough and physical, and the pushing and pulling will make you feel like you’re about to fall right off the table as they rummage around in your insides to pull that fat little bundle out of a too-small incision. It can be scary and confronting […]” (p87)

Dubois never leaves you feeling that way though; she quickly follows up with a big warm hug:

But it’s important to know that this can be just as special and overwhelming as a vaginal birth. You don’t miss out on the magic just because you’re not pushing the baby out. This is still the miracle of life happening before your eyes. Giving birth is giving birth, no matter which exit the baby takes. (p.87)

This is an immensely quotable book (as in, the whole book is quotable), and while it’s not a manual there is advice – the reassuring kind, the kind that reminds you that your instincts are good – embedded throughout:

Most parents will, at some point, fall down the rabbit hole of sleep advice and once you’re down there, you may never come out. Everything you read will convince you that you are setting your child up for failure. The rocking is wrong. The cuddling is wrong. The feeding to sleep is wrong. Touching is wrong. Even looking your child in the eyes is wrong because it’s ‘stimulating’, which is really, really wrong. You might as well let them snort a line of coke for all that stimulation you’re throwing at them. Meanwhile, all you want to do is hold your baby. […]

You will lose your mother-loving mind if you keep trying to ignore your instincts. Your whole body will ache with wanting to pick up and soothe your baby when he needs it. It will feel so idiotic to wake your baby who has fallen asleep while feeding, just so you can put him down to sleep again. Why would you do that? Because someone on the internet told you to? Because some woman in your mother’s group gave you the side-eye when you said you feed your baby to sleep? Because Great Aunt Barbara told you babies will be spoilt if you hold them all the time?

We need to stop driving new mums insane with all the sleep advice. We need to support mums to do whatever helps them get through the days. If everyone’s getting some sleep, celebrate that. It is not a problem unless it’s a problem for you. (p.129-30)

She emphasises the importance of doing what’s right for you and not feeling guilty about it. Considering all the ways in which motherhood is pretty awful, it’s important to enjoy the parts that you love and not agonise over whether it’s ‘wrong’. Not to mention the fact that what works for one baby isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

Considering that I’m at home with a four-month-old baby, my brain is sludge and I’ve been riddled with anxiety since before she was born (and yes, I did get help – as Lauren (I need to call her Lauren, no matter the etiquette, because she’s been such a real voice in my ear over the last few days) says, “You deserve to have some peace.” [p.56]), this was the perfect book for me. It’s highly entertaining, often funny, definitely reassuring and hugely vindicating – and yes, it deserves all those adverbs! Structured in small chapters, like blog posts, it’s also ideal for a life with constant distractions and interruptions. I would happily recommend it even if you have older kids, or you’ve never had kids but would like to understand – and then sympathise. Because motherhood is often thankless, a lot of it is invisible, and it’s exhausting to your very cells (literally: I read that women’s cells age a couple of years for every child they have!). I’m rather sad to have finished this book, but since Lauren has such a strong online/social media presence, and a third child on the way, it’s far from the end of the story!

You Will (Probably) Survive: and other things they don’t tell you about motherhood by Lauren Dubois
Allen & Unwin 2019
Paperback
358 pages
Non-fiction: parenting, humour

Review: The Sparkle Pages

Set not just in my home state of Tasmania but also in the city I live in, I heard good things about Meg Bignell’s debut novel The Sparkle Pages, and while the title did put me off I’m glad I didn’t let that stop me from reading it. The narrator, Susannah Parks, is a mother to four young children, living in West Hobart and determined to recapture the passion in her marriage to handsome engineer Hugh. The novel is her diary for the year, beginning with her New Year’s resolution to get back the ‘spark’, because her marriage – and her day-to-day, has been overtaken with endless chores and some helicopter parenting. She long ago gave up her promising career as a classical viola player (violist) and, due to some unexplained past event, refuses to play it even for her family. In fact, she can barely look at her viola, let alone touch it. But while Susannah refuses to revisit that part of her life, even suffering a bit of post-traumatic stress triggered by suggestions she play it, it becomes clear that the viola is at the heart of her problems, and that she can’t force the ‘spark’ back into her marriage. She must find the passion in herself, instead.

I’ll keep this short as I finished it a few weeks ago and haven’t had a chance to write about it till now, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten some of the things I wanted to include. What I most wanted to say is how impressive this book is. It might not seem it to the average reader, but this would be a hard novel to write. To sustain Susannah’s voice, in the form of diary entries, over the course of a whole year and 400 pages?! That’s impressive, you really do need to give her that, because she’s successful, too. Susannah’s voice has a touch of the classic British ‘chicklit’, Sophie-Kinsella-heroine to it, but there’s also something very real and earthy about her that those Kinsella-esque characters, as fun as they can be, sorely lack. Beneath the humour and the antics and Susannah’s somewhat manic tone lies a realistic portrait of upper-middle-class family life and the impossible choice mothers often have to make between – not just having a career but having anything in their lives that’s just for them, and their children.

I did have to give the book a rest about halfway through. Because it’s laid out as diary entries that cover a whole year, it can be harder to read – harder to maintain enthusiasm, that is. It’s very well written, very believable, but sometimes a little slow and the ‘clues’ to understanding don’t always come when you need them to. Looking at her life through her eyes with a very limited first-person perspective, it was hard to like Hugh at all until the end, and also hard to get a clear view of her children sometimes. Bottom line is: a novel, especially one this long, written entirely in journal form can be a bit of a slog. It is absolutely worth persevering with The Sparkle Pages, though. The revelation of what had happened to make Susannah stop playing viola was hard to read, as a parent, but so gut-wrenching and honest and original. The book made me cry, not just for that part but also for the Ria storyline (Ria, short for Gloria, is Susannah’s best friend). And I do love a book that makes me cry, as odd as that sounds.

So do give this beautifully honest, richly detailed novel that’s humming with life and humour and the bittersweet, a go, it’s well worth your time.

The Sparkle Pages by Meg Bignell
Penguin Books 2019
Paperback
401 pages
Fiction

Review: Witches

It seems more than fitting that I read this book just before the birth my baby girl, just as it was fitting that I read this book at this time in my life. As a woman, having a baby girl is both a source of pleasure and excitement, and of some anxiety. I know what it’s like to be a girl, and it’s difficult to say the least. Holding her small, trusting body in my arms, I have gazed into her peaceful face and thought, with a sense of dread, how do I protect her from the vultures of this world? Add to that the niggling worry that I, who has never been ‘girly’, would have a ‘girly-girl’ child, well, that just adds to the list of unknowns.

Sam George-Allen, a PhD candidate at UTAS, has filled in some gaps for me in my understanding of women, gaps I hadn’t really realised were there before. She also makes me feel not so alone in this broad tapestry of genderhood. Witches isn’t an angry examination of the wrongs done to women, which you might say Fight Like a Girl is (a good book but I still haven’t finished it because it gets me so riled up!), but a “celebration of the power and pleasure of working with other women.” Celebration is the perfect word for it, and she celebrates aspects of being ‘woman’ that I had previously dismissed as trite or stifling. More on that in a bit.

This is no dry study, either, but a deeply personal exploration with touches of memoir to it. George-Allen speaks of her own sense of rivalry with other women, a rivalry “we’re taught to enjoy. We look for and expect it. Celebrity feuds fuel the whole tabloid industry. […] Films, books and magazines aimed at women all sell the same, sorry story of women competing with one another, often for the attention of men. And we buy it.” (3) She’s absolutely right. This is one of the things about being a woman in a Western society that I detest, though I mostly come across it when I glance at the cover of tabloid magazines while queuing in the supermarket, or those rare times I watch MKR (I cannot stand shows like The Bachelor, which would epitomise this). But like the author, I too have felt envy towards other women – there are very few women I haven’t envied for something or other (always scratching away at a sense of lack in myself) – and sometimes that envy can turn into resentment.

It is on this premise that Witches moves forward, examining several spheres in which women work well together, and the power that comes through that space of sharing, bonding and supporting each other. George-Allen makes a strong case for celebrating these spaces, as “for those invested in maintaining the [patriarchal] status quo, there’s a lot to be gained from preventing women from getting together. […] As Naomi Wolf observed in The Beauty Myth […] a population divided, distracted and economically depressed is unable to demand to be released from oppression.” (3) Examples of this abound, such as in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo which immerses the reader into the real-life stories of several families living in a Mumbai slum, always competing over who has the better home to the extent that they never turn their gazes – or their anger – towards their society or government and demand change. This strategy has been used in times of war, and is no less true of women.

Sam George-Allen notes in her introduction that her purpose in writing this book was partly as a self-help exercise. “I was finally trying to stitch together my feminist theory and my deeply flawed practice.” (6) Much of this work is anecdotal, but supported by wide-ranging statistics and reports. It is a deeply feminist work, and reminds us that

“everywhere, women are doing things together – wonderful things, magical things – in spite of all the bullshit we’re told about women being catty, backstabbing, untrustworthy bitches. […] This book is a letter to my former self, and to anyone who’s ever felt like her. Look at all these women, I want to say. Look what happens when we come together. Magic, some people say, is change driven by intent. Of course we are witches.” (10)

In the spirit of the confessional, personal tone used by George-Allen, I felt it only right to reflect on the chapters in the same vein. Because this is a book that encourages you to reflect on your self, and where you fit into your culture, and which messages of the patriarchy you have unwittingly absorbed and used to further fragment and divide. The book is laid out into chapters that each explore the diverse ways in which women work together in positive relationships, including ‘the beauty club’, sportswomen, dancers, midwives, farmers, sex workers, trans women, nuns and musicians. I felt almost reluctant to read the chapters on fan girls, makeup and nuns because I’ve never identified with such girls/women or pastimes, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned and how deftly, and gently, the author helped me examine my own prejudice and think of these women and their interests in new, more sympathetic ways. It was also empowering to read about the “stealthy cultural heft of teen girls” (20), as evidenced by the pop idols and classic hits that they actively choose, the buying power they have – or that their parents wield on their behalf. Growing up below the poverty line, I never really experienced that, and while I went through the motions of putting up posters of teen heartthrobs while a young teen, I didn’t actually like or care about any of them. I just kept that quietly to myself and tried to engage in what I felt were normal, regular teen girl activities. I was an outsider who faked being a member of the teen girl club, because what else can you do as a girl but try to fit in? Especially in a small regional town.

Likewise with Chapter 3: Make-up – The Beauty Club. Another chapter I couldn’t personally relate to, and another topic for which George-Allen convinced me to have more respect. I don’t wear make-up: I have sensitive skin, so it makes me break out in hives; it’s stupidly expensive, hard to maintain and time-consuming to put on. Honestly, there are more important things in life, I’ve always felt. I sometimes study my reflection, though, and acknowledge that of course I’d look “better” with make-up – if it’s applied well, everyone does. I’ve also felt resistant to the pressure to wear it and look a certain way, feeling like it’s one shackle too many. George-Allen, though, takes a different perspective, and it’s a fascinating one. She looks at the ‘beauty club’, the hugely successful YouTube channels devoted to sharing tips and techniques, and how women have claimed ownership of the beauty rituals. “Membership of this club might be forced upon you, but the upside is admission to a worldwide VIP room full of secrets, esoteric knowledge and your best mates.” (53) She notes that these spaces are full of positive expression and that there’s no place for men in them. Men are simply ignored, when they trespass. It’s heady, and perhaps the only way women can subvert the social pressure of always looking good: by owning it. “We know that beauty is not as simple as trying to outcompete our peers for male attention or praise. We know that an understanding of beauty, and membership to the club, is really about gaining and sharing the means to move through the world easily, skilfully, and without detection – a means of smoothing the system from the inside.” (57) Her argument is compelling, and she convinced me to soften my dismissive views on make-up.

The chapter on Sportswomen – subtitled “The Body is a Verb” – was likewise of little interest to me at first. The few times I have tried to play team sport it has been a mostly miserable experience. I’m just not equipped to handle the catty, bitchy game of netball (it was fascinating to learn why it was invented – in that sense, rural Tasmanian netball really gives decorum the finger), or indoor cricket, or bitchy girls in general, and they always seemed to turn up for and dominate sport. After grade six I gave up and simply tried to avoid sport altogether, which I regret now (it probably has more to do with where I lived than sport itself, to be fair). This chapter focuses on women in sport, the pay disparities – she compares the Matildas (female soccer team, ranked 6th in the world) with the Socceroos (male team, ranked 43rd): “in 2015 it was reported that world-renowned player and Matildas co-captain Lisa De Vanna made about $27,397 for the whole year, while Socceroos star Tim Cahill made about that figure per day” (79) – and the popularity of women’s AFL. The chapter on nuns, the one I thought might be the least interesting, was possibly the most interesting (after midwives). This review will get way too long if I go into it but get yourself a copy of this book yourself!

By combining social justice issues with a sensitive, sympathetic and empowering exploration of women’s relationships with each other, George-Allen both caught and held my attention, taught me ways to subvert the ingrained misogyny even women have (without realising it), and helped empower me in celebrating the things women do together, rather than being dismissive of them, or embarrassed by them (that classic internal cringe: unless it’s something men do or men approve of, it’s not worthy, right?). You could say that there’s a lot she doesn’t go into or cover, things missing that were surprising – such as roller derby – and perhaps I wanted more on what women are up against, to balance out the celebration. But at the end of it what I really take home is the idea that women do work well together despite the patriarchy, that if we embrace the things that we want to do and enjoy doing and share these things, that we form stronger connections with other women and that it is this, the joyful, often exuberant relationships between women, that the patriarchy rightly fears because it is how we can break free. Witches: What Women Do Together showed me that to help my new daughter grow into a strong woman, I need to embrace what makes her Woman, in whatever ways that appears, and model healthy, mutually supportive female-female relationships. (This does, of course, need to be balanced with consideration of age-appropriateness etc. Girls are being pressured to grow up too fast these days; I feel so sad when I see very young girls wearing hooker boots and boob tubes.)



Witches: What Women Do Together by Sam George-Allen
Vintage 2019
Paperback
267 pages
Non-fiction

Review: While You Were Reading

At home with a new baby, I’m in need of lighter, fun books these days and everything about the premise of this one indicated it would be a great fit for me. The protagonist’s name is Bae, a name I loved and wanted to give my baby, and it’s about a passion for books and reading and sharing those things with others. Sadly, the novel did not deliver on its premise.

Bae Babbage is 29 going on 30 (or perhaps 29 going on 14?) and a bit of a follower. Her best friend Cassandra is a dominating, judgemental type whose marriage, barely five minutes old, is destroyed when Bae reveals to the groom that Cassandra slept with a waiter on her hen’s night. With Cass no longer speaking to her Bae leaves Perth for a new beginning in Melbourne, finding herself in a crappy marketing/advertising job (the two blur together) and whose only ‘friends’ are a woman, Martha, whom she talks to in the ladies’ toilets but has never met or even seen, and the barista at the nearby cafe, Dino, who doesn’t even seem to like her very much but who writes quotes around her takeaway coffee cup.

Then Bae discovers and buys a second-hand book full of annotations and she soon becomes obsessed by the idea that she can find and meet the mystery author of these scribbles. As she pursues flimsy clues she meets and falls into a relationship with Zach, is fired from her job, creates and hosts a new book sharing event with the help of Dino and Bae’s Instagram Influencer sister, Lizzie (second runner-up on the Bachelor and doesn’t let anyone forget it), and eventually establishes her own marketing business. But Zach isn’t who he seems, Dino’s hiding something, Lizzie keeps trying to turn her event into a dating one, and the hunt for the mystery scribbler puts Bae into hospital. But Bae is nothing if not determined!

My biggest complaint with this novel is the writing. It’s poor. Being an author requires more than stringing a grammatically correct sentence together. To be truly good, you need style, a voice or tone, you need to understand structure and the timely placing of clues and information that both allows your reader to stay engaged by letting them figure things out, and prevents them becoming lost. I don’t know how two people write a cohesive novel together, I really don’t, it’s not something I’d ever want to collaborate on, and I certainly couldn’t tell when one of the two authors was writing or the other. But it read like a hobby, and a lazy one at that. It read like two people having fun putting together a story that really shouldn’t have been published – at least, not without some serious editing. Too many niggling gaps, like when Dino kisses Bae and Bae does the whole “let’s pretend this never happened” dance because she’s thinking about Sunday, the woman who was only ever described as Dino’s “silent business partner” (she’s the cook at the cafe). This completely threw me, there had never been the slightest sign that a) Dino and Sunday were a couple or b) that Bae thought they were, prior to the kiss. Such inconsistencies are jarring, confusing and frustrating. These inconsistencies are one of the reasons why the novel as a whole felt rushed, sloppy and far from being a ‘labour of love’ that had undergone revisions and careful editing.

The story is also much too predictable, with too many deus ex machina moments (well, one would be more than enough). The first one – Zach – only makes his real role all that more predictable. The final ‘reveal’ is a bit of an eye-roll. In a small country town in the middle of nowhere, sure, but in Melbourne? Really?

And finally, the characters. I found it quite hard to get through this novel and finish it because there was nothing particularly interesting about Bae – I don’t even really know what she looks like. She’s a standard rom-com, ‘chicklit’ female protagonist – *yawn*. You could have had a checklist of stereotypical characters and ticked them off: ditzy blonde, token gay, broody love interest, handsome decoy, eccentric older lady etc.

I can’t recommend this novel, it’s really not worth it. I was quite disappointed and even the passion for books that Bae has and the literary references couldn’t save it. They were, in fact, muted and lacklustre. The premise – finding the ‘mystery writer’ – became increasingly flimsy and rather boring; the love triangle (the blurb bills it as a ‘love quadrangle’ but I couldn’t see it) is stale; the writing is of poor quality and overall, there just isn’t anything good I can say about this one.

While You Were Reading by Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus
Simon & Schuster 2019
Paperback
359 pages
Fiction

Review: Home Fires

Home Fires by Fiona Lowe
HQ Fiction 2019
Paperback
487 pages
Fiction



Fiona Lowe’s latest novel explores the aftermath of a devastating bushfire that destroys the town of Myrtle in Victoria’s Otway Ranges – perhaps modelled on the small inland town of Beech Forest, as both are named after local trees. Rather than being a story about the fire itself, Home Fires begins eighteen months later and the title soon becomes a dark pun. As the author explains,

“For many Australians, bushfires are a part of life, but we often only hear about the immediate aftermath of the fire. I wanted to explore the community 18 months after the fire, when the national spotlight has vanished, the buildings have been restored, and the bureaucrats are saying ‘you’re good to go now’… Only, they’re not good to go. Scars run deep. It takes years and years for a community to recover from a devastating fire and that’s a message I wanted to share.”

At the heart of the novel are three very different, strong but flawed women: Claire, a community nurse; Bec, the trophy wife of a local, wealthy builder; and Sophie, a mother-of-two struggling to get her dream home rebuilt after it was destroyed in the fire. They are brought together by Julie, an older woman who does much to keep the fabric of the town together. She begins a knitting group with these three and two others, Erica and Layla, and soon their get-togethers turn into a planning committee for an event calculated to help revive Myrtle’s economy and get tourists to return to a town that still doesn’t have a pub.

Each of these women has been deeply affected by the fire, but in very different ways. For Claire, the day of the fire was her wedding day to local farmer Matt Cartwright; instead, the volunteer firefighter headed off into danger and Claire joined the rest of the town in evacuating to the fire station, where she treated injuries and smoke inhalation in her wedding dress. Now, they’re still not married but it’s the question of children that has Claire in knots because she no longer wants them, and she knows Matt won’t take this well. For Bec, the day of the fire trapped her forever in a marriage with a controlling, domineering man. She had been planning on leaving her husband, Adam, with their two young daughters, Ivy and Gracie, but the fire changed everything, not least because Adam was severely burned saving the life of two other men. Horribly scarred and even more controlling than before, Bec knows she can’t leave the local hero now and feels her unhappy world constrict around her tighter than ever. Sophie and her husband Josh moved from Melbourne, where they couldn’t afford a home, to Myrtle, bought a block of land and finished building their house in what was meant to be the start of ideal lifestyle, with Josh working at the local plantation company and Sophie working as a stay-at-home mother of two young kids. They’d barely lived in their house before the fire completely destroyed it; now they live in a tin shed on the block, Sophie is working full-time in another town while Josh looks after the kids. They argue bitterly over the small things, Josh has lost all interest in sex and their financial situation is so dire they can’t see a way out.

With a summer release date, Home Fires is either very timely or somewhat uncomfortable, I can’t decide which. As I write this review, bushfires in Tasmania, south and east of Hobart, have flared up again after a day of 38 degrees, while homes in Victoria and Western Australia are being destroyed in fires that have yet to be put out. The sky is often yellow with smoke and tastes bad on the tongue. While I haven’t, thankfully, been personally affected by any bushfire, past or present, we had a month of media coverage in Tassie alone when there were over 50 bushfires, caused mostly by dry lightning, and there was the uneasy feeling of apocalyptic doom. Our towns were spared but we’ve lost several hundred thousand hectares of bushland, a lot of it not dependent on fire to regenerate – including fragile alpine areas. The other reason why I felt a bit stressed reading this novel is that I was eight months pregnant, and I always feel things more intensely when I’m pregnant.

For this is an intense novel – an excellent, thoughtful, compassionate but very intense novel. In the process of examining the effect of an extreme bushfire on select members of a small community, Lowe – who has also worked as a midwife, sexual health counsellor and family support worker – deftly touches on issues around domestic violence and hyper-masculinity. On Goodreads I tagged this as ‘gritty realism’, a tag I use for novels that don’t pull any punches. The stories of Bec and Sophie, in particular, made me want to weep. Sophie’s husband Josh was so clearly depressed but no one can see it, least of all him, who must soldier on with stoicism like a good Aussie bloke and, also like an old-fashioned Australian male, should never have to do ‘feminine’ jobs like housework or child-rearing. Yes, we do still have this demographic.

Bec’s husband Adam is similar in this regard, but with his driving ambition, money and desires, and his increasing need to control Bec, Adam presents a more terrifying prospect for an under-educated woman like Bec, whose only real job is to always please him. She has no independence, no agency, but must always maintain the facade of the happy, refined wife of a successful businessman. (It’s doubly sad that I can think of women who’ve been in relationships similar to this.) With its dark thread of misogyny, Bec’s situation made me want to vomit, and had me tied up in knots. Sophie’s marriage was also old-fashioned but in a different way: her desire to be a full-time mother and her expectation that Josh support them financially (which he also held) was not something I could really relate to. They trapped themselves through unrealistic expectations and an inability to discuss things, which just made me depressed.

At first, it was only Claire’s lighter voice and the seemingly happy relationship she had with Matt that balanced out Bec and Sophie’s darker stories, but it quickly became apparent that Claire’s lovely life was also a facade. For a while I worried that there was nothing to balance out the stark bleakness of the behind-the-scenes reality for these women, but it was worth persevering with. The banter between the women at the meeting, the snarkiness between Claire and Bec, and the desire to see good things happen for these people helped act as a counter-point to the tension in other scenes.

Again, I should emphasise that my emotional reaction to this story is quite probably due mostly to pregnancy hormones; other readers may not find it quite as intense as I did. I should also point out that ‘intense’ and all the other words I’ve used aren’t bad things – I like books that are intense, and that make me feel, with characters who seem alive. Lowe achieved all this and more. Perhaps the one character I struggled with was Matt, whose reaction seemed so illogical, even needlessly cruel, at the time that I felt disbelief. The session with the counsellor helped, and it’s true that all three women are in relationships affected by poor communication and understanding (there are other, much healthier examples of relationships around them, such as Julie and Phil, and Erica and Nathan).

There are startling revelations, elements of sinister plotting, a wonderful sense of place (setting) and a much-needed critique of post-fire rebuilding, with politicians turning up to open a new building that the town may not necessarily even need. It’s true that, after a disaster like a bushfire has been ‘concluded’, the communities are often forgotten, especially small, isolated places. Lowe touches on several, smaller issues in the process of tackling the bigger ones, and ultimately shows how important it is to reach out to each other, open up and talk (hence the name of the Tasmanian charity, Speak Up! Stay Chatty that works to prevent suicide) and help each other, rather than suffer in silence which Australians, by-and-large, inherited from our colonial British roots. This story of searching for hope in the ashes of tragedy isn’t one I’m likely to forget anytime soon, and despite the at-times heavy content it was a pleasure to read, with gratifying outcomes.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.