Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Power

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 24: Women and Power In recent days, I have been reading books about powerful women or women who challenged the power structures of their times. My reading list includes a historical novel, an extended essay that compares attitudes toward women in public life in classical and modern times, the diary of Marie Antoinette’s sister, a history of Parisian women during the Second World War, and three biographies of women who helped to change the course of history. Here are this week’s reviews:

#162 of 365 In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 25 minutes

Date Listened: June 27-28, 2018

Review:  I saw the film In The Time of Butterflies (starring Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabel and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 t0 1938 and 1942 to 1952) some years ago. Although the film has an excellent cast, the novel is much better because it focuses on all four Mirabel sisters, beginning with the sole survivor of the four, and rotating the perspective among Patria, Mirabel, Dede and Maria Teresa. They were all affected by the Trujillo regime and engaged with the revolutionary movements of the times in different ways.

The novel also highlights the attitudes toward women on the island in the 1950s and 1960s as the Mirabel sisters were the first generation in their family to receive a formal education, which provided them with increased opportunities. The sisters also balanced their political activism with the expectations that they faced as wives and mothers. I would have been interested to read more about about the wider historical and political context for the events in the Dominican Republic shown in the novel. Overall, however, In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent read.

#163 of 365 Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 27, 2018

Review: A well researched history of Parisian women’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War. Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, emphasizes the difficult choices that individual women made in occupied Paris as well as the evolution of women’s roles in French society as a result of the war. In the 1930s, French women did not have the vote, were barred from certain professions and often did not have access to bank accounts. In common with many other European countries, the war transformed women’s lives and equal rights were enshrined in French law by the late 1940s.

There is also a strong focus on female support networks both within Paris and in concentration camps. Sebba structures the book chronologically and therefore moves quickly between different themes and life stories. A thematic structure or a series of short biographies might have brought together the wide range of fascinating historical detail in a more cohesive fashion. Overall, however, Les Parisiennes provides a vivid account of women’s lives in wartime Paris, describing the atmosphere of occupation then liberation.

#164 of 365 The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court by Cinzia Recca

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 422 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: June 26-28, 2018

Review: A translation and scholarly analysis of the 1781-1785 diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire and elder sister of Marie Antoinette. The first hundred pages of the book are comprised of discussion of key themes in the diary followed by notes on the diary’s structure and translation methods. The remainder of the book is the translation of the diary.

Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette were close in age and shared a governess during their childhoods. Maria Carolina’s reveals just how much they had in common. Both queens displayed warmth and affection to the most important people in their lives. (Maria Carolina hugged her brother Joseph II when he visited her) and were attentive and involved mothers concerned with the education of their children. Maria Carolina was especially concerned with her children’s health, a frequent theme in the journal. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette both expected to exert political influence as well, and suffered from bad press both within their own lifetimes and in subsequent histories. The diary is a fascinating account of a late eighteenth century queen’s daily activities, public engagements and personality and brings Marie Antoinette’s lesser known sister out of comparative obscurity.

#165 of 365 Joan Of Arc: A History by Helen Castor

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 328 pages

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Review: A beautifully written and well researched history of the impact of Joan of Arc on the course of French history. Castor places Joan in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and English, French and Burgundian court politics in the fifteenth century. The book illuminates Joan’s own frustration that she could only achieve what she perceived to be her divinely inspired goals by persuading influential political and military figuresto work with her. The motives of the major historical figures of the times are explored in detail.

Perceptions of divine intervention during Joan’s lifetime are another key theme in the book as Joan was not the only person who claimed to be on a holy mission to change the course of the war. There was even a Joan of Arc impersonator who was recognized by two of her brothers after her death. Throughout the narrative, Castor emphasizes Joan’s ability to divide popular opinion both during her own lifetime and after her death. The sources of her inspiration, her military leadership and her insistence on wearing men’s clothes inspired widespread controversy and the chapters concerning her trial highlight the political, religious and gender debates of her times. The book concludes with a epilogue regarding Joan’s 20th century canonization. A fascinating read.

#166 of 365 Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Genre: Political Science/Classical History

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Acquired: Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 129 pages

Review: Women and Power: A Manifesto discusses how classical Greek and Roman attitudes concerning public speaking and rhetoric as masculine attributes continue to undermine the position of women in the public sphere. Beard, a renowned classicist, expertly blends negative depictions of women in public life in classical drama with the harsh criticism faced by female public figures in the present day. (Hilary Clinton has literally been depicted as Medusa).

The book provides a nuanced analysis of popular perceptions of women speaking in public, including the assumption that female politicians will focus on policies perceived as “women’s issues,” the struggle for women to be taken seriously in traditionally male dominated realms and “the right to be wrong” as women in public life are often held to a much higher standard than men in the same roles. The book is well illustrated with both classical and modern images of women being silenced in the public realm. Highly recommended.

#167 of 365 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 52 minutes

Dates Listened: June 28-July 1, 2018

Review: A fascinating biography of a historical figure who, along with her family, deserves to be better known. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and raised in Britain, with Queen Victoria as her godmother. Her father presented the Koh-I-Noor diamond to the Queen.

Sophia became a prominent British socialite, helping to set trends for cycling, dog breeding and field hockey as pursuits for fashionable young women. After visiting India, however, she developed a strong interest in philanthropy (especially the welfare of Indian soldiers and sailors), Indian nationalism and, after her return to Britain, women’s suffrage. Sophia was among the suffragettes who demonstrated on Black Friday in 1910 when hundreds of British suffragettes were attacked by police and bystanders.

In addition to Sophia’s life story, author Anita Anand also discusses the connections between the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi admired the activism of British suffragettes and studied their tactics. Sophia’s family also receives extensive attention as her parents and siblings also had interesting lives shaped by British rule over India.

The Duleep Singh family associated with many of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Sophia’s brother Victor was a close friend of Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Sophia herself worked closely with the suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst. Sophia’s social circle also included suffragettes who are little known today but were influential in their times.

One of my favourite royal biographies of the year. Highly recommended.

#168 of 365 Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 33 minutes

Dates Listened: July 3-5, 2018

Review:  An insightful biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that places her within the context of her family, Chicago, the experiences of African-Americans in the United States, press coverage of the Obama family in the White House, and the expectations faced by American First Ladies from Martha Washington to the present day. Journalist and author Peter Slevin, who covered the Obama White House extensively, focuses on Michelle Obama’s accomplishments including her Ivy league degrees, professional achievements and her initiatives as First Lady, including her efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise and her advocacy for military families.

There are mentions of how Michelle Obama had to compromise her own professional ambitions in support of her husband’s political career and presidency and it would have been interesting for Slevin to have analyzed these decisions in more detail. The audiobook is well read by Robin Miles. Highly recommended.

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