Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne ThĂ©riault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.

Modern romance stories are better than you think

The Proposal was a super-sweet, very swoony modern romance set in Los Angeles. The actual wedding proposal takes place at the beginning of the book: a public proposal on the big screen at a Dodgers game that was definitely not discussed ahead of time. Nikole is rescued from her upset now-ex-boyfriend and an angry crowd by Carlos and his sister. Nikole and Carlos go on to have a very enjoyable romance.

Recommended, especially if you need a pick-me-up.

An aside, not just about this book: one of the things I like about most modern romance stories is how they deal with issues of diversity, living in a social media filled world, consent, sexism, and generally what it’s like to be a woman navigating the current world. These are books written largely by and for women, and they are sometimes written at an amazing clip, which means they can react to the issues of the day faster than other genres. And it’s all wrapped up in a happy package, a thing that can feel radical in and of itself.

So consider a good romance novel the next time you’re looking for a book.

More about the characters than the mysteries

The Lady Sherlock series is… fine? I recently read the first two books; they’re fun without being spectacular. I’m not sure I could tell you any of the intricacies of the actual mysteries, which always seem to be entirely too convoluted. One of Agatha Christie’s rules of mystery writing is that the motive should be something simple and everyday. These books do not follow that rule.

However, I’m not here for the mysteries. I’m here for the characterization of women in Victorian London figuring out how to be transgressive and get away with it. Charlotte Holmes losing her virginity and making sure it gets out so her father can’t marry her off; Mrs Watson coming from the stage; Charlotte’s sister starting to make her own living by writing down “Sherlock”‘s mysteries. Sherlock is a total fabrication created so that people will bring their issues to Charlotte.

The books are a mixed bag, and I still have the third one on hold at the library, so I’m enjoying them enough to keep going on the series.

Knowledge is power

Educated was not an easy read. It’s the memoir of a woman who was raised in a strict Mormon household, the kind that is convinced the government is after them. Her mother was a midwife at first, and then a healer later. Suffice it to say, there was no going to see doctors. There was no school. She didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was 9. The home environment was not healthy, to say the least.

But she ends up at BYU as a 16 or 17 year old (it wasn’t exactly clear from her writing), where she starts learning both about the world and how to learn. She ends up at Cambridge and then Harvard and estranged from her family and parents.

Educated was a powerful read – you feel her emotions, the highs and the lows. The desire to run away, the need to fit in, and all the therapy in between.

Highly recommended.

Don’t f*** with Circe

Madeline Miller collects the myths that mention Circe the nymph, gives her a backstory, and then puts it all into a very entertaining story.

If you remember Circe at all, it’s probably because you know her as one of the obstacles Odysseus had to face before he could get home (though, Calypso is the nymph with whom he dallies for seven years, not Circe). Circe is known for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. In this telling, she still totally turns them into pigs – who knows what a bunch of hungry sailors are going to do to a woman living alone on an island. A woman has to defend herself, after all. But the story is more nuanced than that; she changes them back eventually and they use a hidden cove on her island to repair their ship over the winter, when it is usually too dangerous to sail anyway.

Overall, Circe is portrayed as a nymph who has been rather unjustly exiled to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, where she teaches herself magic from the herbs there. She makes friends with the animals – it’s very Cinderella in that way, now that I think about it. People and gods come to visit her over the years, and she’s even once allowed to leave the island for a particular task.

Circe is a woman who has been allowed to fully realize who she is and what she wants and figures out how to get it. It’s wonderful.

Recommended.

Having Feelings

I had so many conflicting thoughts while reading All The Single Ladies. I agree with her premise: that many women are marrying and having children later because that is how they get time to fully form who they are and what they want from life. We need to support women at all stages of their lives, from single hood, through partnership (if that’s what you want), through parenthood (again, if that’s in the cards), and beyond. All of this, and this is most of what she’s saying, is 100% correct, and we should celebrate all of the ways in which people, both men and women, realize their full potential.

Does my praise sound forced? It might. I do agree with what All The Single Ladies had to say, but at the same time, I felt vaguely attacked for my own life choices (married in my late 20s, having a child a year later). Did those decisions, negatively affect my career? Probably. Moving across the country twice didn’t help, though. I’ve always chosen a new adventure over building a career. It’s part of who I am.

And so: All The Single Ladies gave me Feelings. Feelings of “I didn’t do life right” except that I’ve done life right for me so far, and I hope to continue that. But that was a conclusion that took me some time to get to.

The later chapters also gave me feelings of “Yes, we absolutely need to make it easier for women to have both children and careers” and “female friendships are super important” and “society needs to realize how much money women have.”

So: recommended, but apparently I needed some psychoanalysis to get there.

Ignoring the feminine

Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.

Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.

There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.

This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.

Lady detectives are feminist

I had, perhaps a bit densely, never really thought about mystery novels primarily as books about working until I read Hardboiled & High Heeled. Mysteries had always been books about solving problems, about putting the world in order. That is, until this book pointed out that mysteries were the first stories to show women, working. Not as the love interest, nor primarily looking for a romantic partner. A woman, at work, solving problems.

It focuses mainly on three characters: Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Kinsey Millhone, and Kay Scarpetta. Each woman is competent, not interested in relationships (though interested in sex, as most people are), and the primary objective of each of these characters is solving the mystery in front of them before anyone else gets hurt.

Hardboiled & High Heeled is a bit academical, but still readable. If you’re interested in how women are portrayed when they want to read as competent and in charge, this is a good start.

When reading one book makes you want to read more

Sharp is a well-researched overview of a series of ten public intellectuals, all women, what they wrote, how other people reacted to it, and how they handled those reactions. What kind of personas did they get? Which of their pieces defined their public personas? How did they feel about that? Why?

The well-researched aspect of the book was the part that most resonated with me. I came away wanting to read all the books and articles by Kael, Didion, Parker, even Sontag, who I developed a disdain for in the 1990s for no particular reason. I want to add every entry in Sharp‘s bibliography to my own already too-long to read list. I am envious of Michelle Dean for having the time and purpose to have already done so.

Also, Nora Ephron, I’m sorry. I knew your persona as the person who wrote Meg Ryan movies. The same Meg Ryan movies that I got sick of in the 80s and 90s. I still don’t understand why/how Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hank’s characters fell in love without really meeting through the whole of Sleepless in Seattle. And Billy Crystal’s schtick was fine the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally, but it was grating upon re-watch. Eventually, the movies just felt like Meg Ryan being Meg Ryan – unfair to her and you, I can see now – and not like anything special or interesting. (And yes, I believe men and women can be friends without one wanting to sleep with the other.) I had no idea you had a whole pre-movie body of work. It’s time to go read that.

And maybe this is where I say something about how women get discounted in intellectual life, and where I cite a relevant quote from How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Instead I will say that I am glad Michelle Dean is taking these women seriously and inspiring other people to also take them seriously.

Recommended.

Tougher than you

Manhattan Beach is about New York City in World War II, and it’s about a young woman, Anna, who decides she wants to be a diver. Her father disappeared when she was a teenager; she both wants and doesn’t want to find him. She would like to know what happened to him and to build a life for herself.

I picked up Manhattan Beach because I read the first chapter in an issue of Elle magazine and was entranced by the story of eleven-year-old Anna tagging along with her father as he goes to meet a new business acquaintance. It’s both dreamy and practical. Anna impresses her father’s new business partner with her toughness about putting her bare feet into the cold ocean; the cold ocean and the house on the ocean is shot through gauze. Nothing bad could happen at a house like that.

But overall, I ended up being surprised at the story’s toughness. The rest of the book is not nearly so dreamy or romantic. Bad things happen, people are betrayed, sexism is prevalent. Anna moves through the world competently and with confidence. It’s a nice change from the uncertain way women often act in stories.

Recommended.