Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Society

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 17: Women and Society: The last seven books on my reading list all examined the role of women in society from the nineteenth century to the present day. I read a work of popular science, three novels, two memoirs and a history of women pirates! While 5 of this week’s books were audiobooks, I also read a long novel and a memoir that took more than a day or two to finish. I am currently around a week a half behind schedule in my Book a Day project and hope to catch up over the summer to ensure that I finish 365 books by the end of the year. Here are this week’s reviews:

 #113 of 365 Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

Genre: Popular Science

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 31 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 1-2, 2018

Review: A fascinating book about how gender stereotypes from the Victorian era to the present shaped scientific research as well as modern research that indicates that male and female brains are not very different after all. Angela Saini, an engineer and science writer, examines the history of research concerning women in a variety of scientific fields including psychology, anthropology, biology and pharmacology. The chapters are divided by scientific field, examining longstanding assumptions about fundamental gender differences and how they are being challenged today. Saini’s observations concerning the place of women in the history of science are also interesting as she discusses how women’s contributions were often undervalued as science became increasingly confined to the universities from the late 19th century, excluding independent scholars. An important read that combines science, history and cultural studies.

#114 of 365 Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 48 minutes

Dates Listened: May 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review: I expected the book to be a series of short biographies of female pirates throughout history but Duncombe is instead as interested in the idea of female pirates in their respective cultural contexts as the women themselves. The early chapters are surprisingly dull as Duncombe discusses Viking and Ottoman society with little attention to the female pirates of these time periods. The book becomes more dramatic during the Golden Age of Piracy as the most famous women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, are better documented than their predecessors. The section about the 19th century discusses some fascinating and little known Australian and Canadian pirates as well as a fictional tale of a Canadian woman pirate that is often mistaken for historical fact.

In the introduction, Duncombe describes herself as a storyteller rather than a historian but the book does not entirely succeed as either storytelling or history. The historical analysis is superficial and the dry tone of the book often detracts from the storytelling. Nevertheless, Duncombe provides an interesting study of the appeal of fictional pirate stories with female characters. The book also brings some fascinating historical figures out of obscurity. The audiobook is read in a dry monotone by Hillary Huber, who is far more expressive in her readings of fiction such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

#115 of 365 Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Genre: Classic Novel

Dates Listened: May 3-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 10 minutes

Review: My previous experiences with Virginia Woolf’s fiction have been mixed. I read To The Lighthouse a few times before I properly appreciated the work and much preferred Woolf’s essay about women and writing, A Room of One’s Own. In contrast, I was drawn into Mrs. Dalloway from the opening lines and found this novel captivating. While the novel is ostensibly a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for an evening party and considers the circumstances of her life, Clarissa’s thoughts and the thoughts of those around her reveal the culture of Britain in the years following the First World War, including attitudes toward the monarchy, the class system, the trauma experienced by returning soldiers, and, most of all, the experience of being female in an environment where the achievements of women often unfolded behind the scenes. I was also impressed by Woolf’s ability to invoke the geography of post-WWI London as her characters consider the Queen Victoria monument outside Buckingham Palace (at a time when Queen Victoria was within living memory) and Trafalgar Square among other landmarks. Highly recommended.

#116 of 365 Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 576 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Dates Read: April 25-May 5, 2018

Review: An epic historical novel about a village in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The author uses the experiences of the villagers – Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians – to tell the wider story of the tragedies that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern Turkey. There are also vivid scenes depicting the Ottoman experience at Gallipoli and the accidental death of King Alexander of Greece. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece makes a cameo appearance in the story. The characters are described as though they are in a folktale – “Iksander the Potter” “Philothei the Beautiful” – and perhaps the most interesting figure is Leyla, who poses as a Circassian concubine then seizes her chance for freedom and an unexpected homecoming. While the novel was absorbing and beautifully written, it was not a page turner and I found the multiple perspectives made it easy to put the down the book and pick it up again the next day. Well worth reading.

#117 of 365 Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Genre: Memoir

Dates Listened: May 6, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 46 minutes

Review: An engaging sometimes heartbreaking memoir. I liked that the author was forthright about her career ambition and how her work as an actor provides meaning in her life. The confident tone of the memoir was inspiring, considering the adversity that the author has experienced including the loss of two her sisters and giving her daughter up for adoption. I was disappointed, however, that the book ended with Mulgrew’s role on Star Trek Voyager and did not continue to her current role on Orange is the New Black. Excellent narration of the audiobook by the author.

 #118 of 365 Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours

Date Listened: May 7, 2018

Review: A deeply unsettling novel about a murder and its aftermath. Two unpleasant characters successfully conceal their murder of another unpleasant character but their guilt and feelings of being haunted gradually destroy their lives. Zola’s detached, naturalist style provides details that make the story even more creepier including the description of drowned bodies in the morgue and the feelings of the paralyzed mother of the murder victim who is unable to communicate her knowledge of the crime. Not my kind of book but I understand why it is a classic. Kate Winslet provides an excellent narration for the audiobook.

#119 of 365 Personal History by Katharine Graham

Genre: Memoir

Format: Paperback, 642 pages

Acquired: Purchased from ABC Books

Dates Read: May 8-10, 2018

Review: I was inspired to read this memoir after seeing the film, The Post and greatly enjoyed reading Katherine Graham’s account of her family, social circle and experiences as owner and publisher of the Washington Post. The author belonged to a fascinating family including an uncle who perished on the Titanic and a sister who befriended Queen Marie of Romania. Over the course of her life, Graham socialized with American presidents and cultural figures and even became the first woman to be received individually by Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The book is particularly fascinating in the second half as Graham took charge of the Post after the suicide of her husband and overcame both dismissive attitudes toward women in the business world and her own insecurities shaped by stereotypes about women at the time. Highly recommended.

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Wall Street Journal Interview: Why does Prince George relentlessly wear shorts?

Prince George of Cambridge

I discussed Prince George of Cambridge’s wardrobe with Jacob Gallagher at the Wall Street Journal. The eldest child of William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is always photographed wearing shorts, regardless of the season or where he travels with his parents. His shorts are part of a long British tradition of distinct clothing for young children.

Click here to read “Why does Prince George relentlessly wear shorts?” in “11 Burning Questions About Men’s Shorts, Answered” in the Wall Street Journal

 

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Global News Interview: Why Meghan Markle seems to be everywhere ahead of the royal wedding

Meghan Markle

I discussed Meghan Markle’s public visibility during the weeks leading up to the royal wedding. In contrast to Catherine Middleton or Lady Diana Spencer, Meghan Markle had a long career as an actress and therefore has confidence in the public eye from the time of her engagement. As an American, Meghan is also new to the United Kingdom and is spending most of her time with her fiance Prince Harry during their engagement rather than her own parents.

Click here to read Why Meghan Markle seems to be everywhere ahead of the royal wedding

 

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CBC News Interview: Will Meghan promise to ‘obey’ Harry?

In the latest edition of the CBC Royal Wedding Newsletter, I discussed the vows and music planned for the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“Meghan “has a strong interest in women’s equality, and that will influence her decision regarding the wording of the vows,” says Toronto-based royal historian and author Carolyn Harris, who figures Meghan will likely drop “obey” on May 19. If she does, she would match the choice of both Kate, when she married Harry’s brother Prince William seven years ago, and Harry and William’s mother Diana, when she married Prince Charles in 1981.”

Click here to read Will Meghan promise to ‘obey’ Harry? at CBC News

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Hello! Canada/Chatelaine Magazine Interview: Just How Many Royal Wedding Rules Are Meghan And Harry Actually Breaking?

Prince Harry

I discussed the preparations for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with Mishal Cazmi, in an interview at the Fairmont Royal York hotel, which has been published online by Hello! Canada and Chatelaine Magazine. The interview includes the wedding cake, the guest list, the bride’s family and the venue.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

“To set the record straight about Megan and Harry’s break with tradition, we tapped royal historian Carolyn Harris, who is well-versed in all things related to the crown. We caught up with Harris in Toronto, where she helped curate the window displays honouring the most iconic royal moments in the history of the Fairmont Royal York (everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Charles has passed through the hotel’s grand hallways) to celebrate the biggest wedding of the year.”

Click here to read “Just How Many Royal Wedding Rules Are Meghan And Harry Actually Breaking? We asked royal historian Carolyn Harris to weigh in on traditions the soon-to-be-wed couple will honour and the ones they’ll flush straight down the loo.” in Chatelaine Magazine

Click here to read Which traditions are Prince Harry and Meghan actually breaking at their royal wedding? in Hello! Canada

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Princess Margriet of the Netherlands

Princess Margriet of the Netherlands attending the Tulip Festival in Ottawa in 2002

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Princess Margriet of the Netherlands and the unique relationship between Canada and the Netherlands.

“Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet Francisca of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange-Nassau, Princess of Lippe-Biesterfeld (born 19 January 1943 in Ottawa, ON) spent her early childhood in Canada during the Second World War. The annual Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa emerged from gifts of thousands of tulip bulbs from the Dutch royal family. Margriet continues to make regular visits to Canada, strengthening ties between Canada and the Netherlands.”

Click here to read my article about Princess Margriet of the Netherlands in the Canadian Encyclopedia

 

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Her Royal Highness Princess Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline of Albany, Countess of Athlone, viceregal consort of Canada from 1940 to 1946 (born 25 February 1883 in Berkshire, United Kingdom; died 3 January 1981 in London, United Kingdom).

Princess Alice promoted Canadian culture and women’s contributions to the Second World War. She was the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria and the last member of the royal family to serve as viceregal consort of Canada.

Click here to read Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone in the Canadian Encyclopedia

 

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Books I’ve Read This Week: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy and Memoir

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 16: Historical Fiction, Classics, Philosophy and Memoir: The last seven books on my reading list came from a variety of genres. I began by reading three historical novels, set around the same time period (from the French Revolution to the American Civil Wars with Queen Victoria’s accession in between these two events) then some 20th century philosophy about the pursuit of happiness, followed by a Second World War historical novel, a modern prison memoir and a medieval epic poem. Here are the past week’s reviews:

#106 of 365 Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 22-April 25, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 29 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An enjoyable novel, which dramatizes the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign as a coming of age story. The best scenes are from Victoria’s perspective, showing her learning from her mistakes and growing into her new position as Queen. I liked the idea that Victoria was inspired by past Queens such as Mary II, who acquired Kensington Palace where Victoria grew up and Queen Elizabeth I.

In common with the PBS Victoria series inspired by the novel, however, there is too much scheming behind the scenes by the Duke of Cumberland and John Conroy, which moves the narrative away from Victoria’s own experiences. I found the fictionalized “romance” between Victoria and her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, unconvincing as well. Prince Albert is introduced too late in the novel, considering that Victoria had met him before her accession.

There are also some distracting historical inaccuracies. While the author made some changes to history to advance the plot of the novel, such as keeping the Duke of Cumberland in England after Victoria became Queen, when he in fact traveled to Hanover to take up his new position as King of Hanover in 1837, other historical inaccuracies seem unnecessary. The future Czar Alexander II, who indeed visited Queen Victoria’s court, is depicted as the son of Victoria’s godfather, Alexander I, when he was in fact the son of Alexander I’s brother Nicholas I and his betrothed is described as a Danish princess, when Alexander II actually married a Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt and it was his son who married a Danish princess.

I would have preferred the novel to follow the historical record more closely as the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign are a fascinating time period that does not require major changes to provide dramatic material for novelists.

#107 of 365 Varina by Charles Frazier

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 356 pages

Dates Read: April 25-26, 2018

Review: Cold Mountain is one of my favourite novels and so I was delighted to see that Charles Frazier had written a new historical novel about the American Civil War. The novel imagines the reminiscences of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy in her old age, after being contacted by James Blake, an African-American man who had once been a young boy in her care during her flight from Richmond.  In her conversation with James, Varina grapples with the society she grew up in and the decisions made by her stubborn, misguided husband, Jefferson Davis.

Frazier does not only focus on Varina’s relationship with her often absent husband but her friendships with the prominent women of her times, including the diarist Mary Chestnut and even, after the end of the Civil War, American First Lady Julia Grant. The strongest scenes in the novel depict Varina, her children and James attempting the flee the confederacy at the end of the Civil War, meeting a variety of characters from union deserters to a bigoted teenage plantation owner in scenes reminiscent of Cold Mountain. A very absorbing and well written novel.

#108 of 365 The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Genre: Classic Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: April 25-26, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel resembles Zorro set during the French Revolution with a masked swordsman referred to as a fox who achieves daring rescues under the cover of darkness. The Scarlet Pimpernel in fact inspired Zorro and all subsequent stories about heroic figures with secret identities. The melodramatic plot is engaging but the characters are one dimensional and there are a lot of stereotypes, especially involving men and women or the English and the French. A fun but forgettable classic novel.

#109 of 365 The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

Genre: Philosophy

Genre: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Date Read: April 28, 2018

Review: My book club chose The Conquest of Happiness for this month and the book prompted a great deal of discussion. Russell presents a curious combination of ideas that remain relevant today and dated concepts that reflect the political conditions and stereotypes of his times. Perhaps the most insightful chapters concern the importance of thinking outside yourself to achieve happiness. Those who think of lifelong learning, world events, and other people in their lives will be happier than those who focus on their own deficiencies and the social pressure that surrounds them. In contrast, Russell’s judgment of childless people as cutting themselves off from “the stream of life” is dated and narrow minded. An interesting and influential book but very much a product of its times.

#110 of 365 The German Girl by Joy Osmanski

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: April 26-28, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 48 minutes

Review: A melancholy novel about the St. Louis, a ship full of German refugees that was turned away from North America at the beginning of the Second World War. The scenes aboard the ship are very moving but the later scenes in Cuba could use more detail. The audiobook was generally well read but because there are two points of view alternated in the book – Hannah, a passenger on the St. Louis, and her great-niece Anna, who is searching for information about her father – two audiobook narrators would have been helpful to keeping the past and present scenes distinct, especially because there are so many parallels between Hannah and Anna.

#111 of 365 Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: April 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review: I am enjoying the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black and found the memoir interesting and enjoyable to read but very different from the TV show. While the series provides the back stories for numerous inmates, the book focuses very closely on Piper’s experiences and how she is perceived by the guards and other prisoners because of her privileged background. The book describes daily life behind bars in detail including the bonds and rivalries that develop between the inmates, work assignments and hobbies, and the disconnect between the prison routine and the skills required to succeed in the outside world. I would have been interested to read more about the post-prison lives of Piper and her fellow inmates.

#112 of 365 Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

Genre: Classic 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours and 8 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Read: April 30-May 1, 2018

Review: Epic poetry, well read by George Guidall. The verse translation from Old English by Seamus Heaney captures the drama of Beowulf’s rise to power and battles. The final hour of the audiobook is an essay by the translator about the place of Beowulf in English literature, the reasons why the poem has not entered the cultural imagination in the manner of The Odyssey or the Iliad and how the language speaks to an earlier, more global history. Highly recommended.

 

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CNN Interview: America’s second ‘princess’: Why Meghan Markle is a modern Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly in the wedding dress she wore to the religious wedding ceremony on April 19, 1956

I discussed the parallels between Grace Kelly, who married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco in 1956, and Meghan Markle, with Judith Vonberg at CNN. Like Grace Kelly, Meghan Markle is leaving an established career as an actress and entering into a world of established palace traditions. As Americans embarking on married lives in Europe, Grace Kelly and Meghan Markle also faced cultural differences.

Click here to read America’s second ‘princess’: Why Meghan Markle is a modern Grace Kelly

 

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CBC News Interview: All about the dress

Charles and Diana, The Prince and Princess of Wales, on their wedding day in 1981

I was interviewed by Janet Davison at CBC News for The Royal Fascinator newsletter concerning the history of royal wedding dresses including the voluminous dress and train worn by Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Click here to read “All About the Dress” at CBC News.

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