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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