The Power by Naomi Alderman

I’ve been searching for books about women empowerment. I found The Power by Naomi Alderman popping up on a lot of 2017 award lists and decided to give it a shot. This speculative fiction fantasy novel is an expertly written piece of alternative history with a strong woman empowerment component that also serves to discuss what would happen if women and men changed roles. I was thoroughly engaged from beginning to end.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, as I discussed before, is a work of fantasy/science fiction, that takes readers down a path of alternate reality and forces them to take a closer look at our world in slightly uncomfortable and surprising ways. All across the world, lives are changing as it is discovered that teenage girls and women (really all females) have a mysterious new physical power. This power comes from within and gives them the ability to cause horrifying pain and, if pushed far enough, death. These young women find that they have the ability to release skeins of electrical current out into the world. After discovering they have such massive power, the women begin to rise up, trying to awaken the power in other women who don’t have the power yet. As expected, the whole of society begins to fall apart with the sudden shift of power from men to women. No one is sure what to do as women all over the world are finally given the ability to stand up against their aggressors.

Not everyone is so out in the open and happy with the new power and structure order. Here is where readers really gain a glimpse into the lives of four key players in the new world order: Roxy, Mother Eve, Tunde, and Margot. While there are certainly many, many other characters in this novel, these four are highlighted and discussed the most as readers follow them and discover how they are dealing with the new power and the revolution at hand.

Roxy is a London girl from a tricky family who soon discovers that the skein inside of her gives her the power of a true warrior. With her new ability, she has the power to shake the world and be whoever she wants to be.

When her power came to be, Mother Eve was living as a foster child with two very religious parents who hid their true nature behind a self-contained wall. She ran away from home and became a symbol for change called Mother Eve.

Tunde is a rich Nigerian boy who, before the skeins were discovered, only worried about hanging around the family pool. After the power shift, he finds himself traveling the world searching for stories to put out to the press.

Margot is an American politician scrabbling for a rise of government power when the women with skeins began to come out. Margot’s family and her career drastically change when she realizes that her family has been personally affected by the skeins. She must decide how she wishes to present herself to the public as she contends with a government that doesn’t necessarily feel the same way that she does.

All four of these people have important and worthy roles to play as the world seems to shift from the old normal to the old normal. I enjoyed following each character’s journey and discovering the lengths that each is willing to go to as they work to get back on their feet in a world rocked by chaos, confusion, and seemingly never-ending change.


This is also available in the following format:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

It turns out there’s a cult following of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals series.  Now, I’m one of them.  The audio version of  A Brief History of Montmaray took me across several states (and back).  Sometimes I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice how low the gas gauge was – a lack of attention that can be dangerous on some stretches of South Dakota highway.

It’s written as the secret diary of (Princess) Sophie FitzOsborne,  one of the ruling family of the  island kingdom of Montmaray.

Sophie’s view of herself, and  her  family  evolves as she learns more of the tragedies surrounding her family’s history, including her aunt’s disappearance. The cast of characters include her very eccentric Uncle John (the king), her siblings and cousin – all  with their own obsessions and quirks. There’s a secret language that the cousins have developed – she encodes parts of her diary in this language, in case the book falls in the wrong hands. There are also secret tunnels, the possibility that the crumbling castle may have connections to the Holy Grail, a jeweled egg gifted by the Romanovs, and perilous rescues and invasions by sea and air.

It is 1936, and world events are overtaking the seclusion of the tiny country in the waters off the coasts of France and Spain,  in the Bay of Biscay. The remaining FitzOsbornes are very aware of the political turmoil in Europe, especially the Spanish Civil War and rising fascism in Germany.  German soldiers land on the shores of Montmaray one day, as part of the historical/archaeological research wing of the Nazis, and life is never the same again.

At the end of the first volume, there are still many mysteries to be solved.  I can’t wait to hear more from this charmingly eccentric family.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello Again!

How is your month of Edwardian reading going? Have you found something that has grabbed your interest? If you’re still looking, maybe a movie would be the ticket – there are some gorgeous films set during this time period. Here are a few to consider:

A Room With a View – From the famous production team of Merchant and Ivory, this gorgeous film of love and romance stars Helen Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and is set in the idyllic Italian countryside.

Howard’s End – Another beautiful Merchant and Ivory production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, brings the rigid rules of Edwardian society into sharp focus.

Edwardian Farm – Find out how the other half lives when two archaeologists and a historian recreate farm life for a full year using practices from 1906 England. Fascinating!

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – So beautiful! Filmed on location in England and Scotland, this drama follows artist Edith Holden through the changing seasons.

Murdoch Mysteries – Follow Detective William Murdoch as he solves murder mysteries in Edwardian Toronto using the latest scientific methods.

Parade’s End – From the end of the Edwardian era through World War I, this epic story of romance and betrayal stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

Mary Poppins – For something much lighter and happier, you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins. It’s magical and fun and surprisingly thoughtful. Don’t miss it.

Miss Potter – The charming story of Beatrix Potter’s efforts to publish her first books and gain some measure of independence as a single woman in Edwardian England. Lovely and heartbreaking. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover is a twisted love story that had more depth than I was expecting. This begins with Lily escaping back home after her father’s funeral. Lily grew up in a very small town in Maine where everyone thinks that they know everyone else’s business, but as readers are quick to realize, Lily’s whole family has deep dark secrets that she can’t seem to escape from no matter where she goes. Back in Boston after her father’s funeral, Lily hopes to settle back into the life that she has made for herself since she graduated from college.

As she’s struggling to regain her composure, Lily has a run-in with a gorgeous neurosurgeon named Ryle Kincaid. Lily’s life all of a sudden seems perfect. Ok, maybe. Maybe Ryle seems a little bit too assertive and arrogant and a tad bit stubborn, but if you were a neurosurgeon still in training, working insanely busy days and doing VERY long surgeries wouldn’t you act the same way?! Despite his flaws, Ryle is brilliant, knows exactly what he wants, is sensitive, and even though he doesn’t want a relationship, he still has a soft spot for Lily. If he only could get over his complete aversion to relationships, Lily thinks he would be the perfect man.

Flash forward some months and Lily finds herself bumping into Ryle again as she starts her new business. This second chance encounter ends with the discovery that both Lily and Ryle can’t get the other out of their heads. Ryle decides to make an exception to his ‘no-dating’ rule just for Lily, but Lily is left wondering why he had that rule in the first place.

Lily and Ryle’s new relationship, combined with Lily’s new business and Ryle’s crazy work schedule, leads Lily to reflect on her very first love – Atlas Corrigan. Besides being her first love, Atlas is a messy connection to her past that Lily was glad to escape. In her tumultuous past, Atlas was the one good thing that brightened up her depressing circumstances. Reading through old journals that she shoved in the back of her closet, Lily finds herself remembering things she wishes she could forget. She also keeps wondering while Atlas never came looking for her like he promised that he would. Lily believed they were kindred spirits and he was her protector.

As Lily and Ryle progress further into their relationship, Atlas suddenly reappears. This reappearance comes at a crucial time in Lily’s life and in her relationship with Ryle. Lily quickly finds everything she has worked with Ryle to build is threatened and is forced to think about what she really wants in life. Does she want to follow in her mother’s footsteps? Or break the cycle? Should she choose Ryle or Atlas? Or will she choose to put herself first?


This book is also available in the following format:

Janelle Monae All Day

Janelle Monae’s masterpiece album, Dirty Computer, with its socially-conscious future funk and infectious grooves, is as good as it gets. Without question, it’s best-album-of-2018-good.  I’m blown away by how inventive and theatrical the album is while also blending multiple genres. And did you check the liner notes? Read them as you listen to the album to up the ante on your listening experience. Like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., with many layers of complexity, Dirty Computer gets better with every listen.

Dirty Computer  is a painstakingly conceived and executed work of art drawing on inspiration from the late, great Prince whose presence is ubiquitously felt throughout.  Other sources of inspiration are Gloria Steinem,  Barack O’bama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, and myriad literary works including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, and recently release film, Black Panther, among others.  One article offers a recommended reading list “based on Monáe’s dystopian inspirations and Afrofuturist influences, based on a future that is diverse and representative of what some might consider subversion—from being pansexual to polyromantic to black.”

If Monae’s music signifies disruption, than by all means: crank the volume, and signify, people, because Monae’s America is the future. Dirty Computer’s America is not homogeneous, fixed, static, and beige,  but instead decidedly diverse, eclectic, colorful, fluid, shapeshifting, and prismatic. The May 1st 2018 issue of The Economist called the album “protest music done right” and gave it praise for delivering a societal critique without being “self-congratulatory”. This great piece from Philadelphia-based publication-The Inquirer— analyzes Dirty Computer in the context of American Protest Music and compares the the album’s final track, “Americans”, to Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is You Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”.  Author Dan DeLuca sums up the album simply as “party-starting protest music, ” and that’s exactly what it is.

But it’s a new kind of protest music. “Americans”, fused with O’bama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech,  is an electrifying anthem that conveys a powerful sense of change for the better, of a new day on the horizon. Monae states that her intent is to inspire and uplift, and those intentions are apparent from start to finish in this album.  I love rolling my window down on a sunny day, cranking the volume, and singing along with Monae: “Just love me baby / love me for who I am / fallen angels / singing clap your hands / don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby / naw / I’m American / I’m American/ I’m American/ I’m American. And check these verse lyrics:

I like my woman in the kitchen/ I teach my children superstitions/ I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand/ A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes /But she’ll never ever wear my pants.
Seventy-nine cent to your dollar/ All that bullshit from white-collars /You see my color before my vision /Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would it help you make a better decision?

The message is powerful but you might not even realize you’re getting an education because you’ll be too busy grooving to notice, at least at first.

What I love about this album is that it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite song. In “I Like That,” Monae’s voice flows effortlessly over a deep, droning drum & bass foundation and all the hits are in the right spot, complete with that TLC shout-out: “Sometimes a mystery, sometimes I’m free / Depending on my mood or my attitude / Sometimes I wanna roll or stay at home / Walking contradiction, guess I’m factual and fiction /A little crazy, little sexy, little cool/Little rough around the edges, but I keep it smooth /I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong /I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs /And I like that /I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one  who likes that. “I Like That” is a testament to being fearless and proud in your skin no matter what anybody else thinks. My absolute favorite line in the song appears when Monae recalls a memory from her past:  I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off /And you rated me a six /I was like, “Damn”/But even back then with the tears in my eyes / I always knew I was the shit.” The rise and fall of the lyrics–the cadence–is as smooth as Monae’s voice and perfectly executed. I’m amazed by how she sculpts a song and meshes the verse within the constraints of the song structure.

“I Got The Juice”, featuring Pharrell, is a slammin’ proclamation about owning one’s (fluid) sexuality. SPIN magazine referred to the tune as “the best of Dirty Computer’s homages to Prince.” (I can’t say I disagree although “Make Me Feel” would be a really obvious contender. More on that below.) “I Got The Juice” echoes Prince’s “Cream” in how it oozes sex appeal; but this smashing song goes to eleven on a scale of 10. Just as the song builds to a crescendo and you think it’s going to cool off, it  ramps up for one last feminist wave of authority when Monae powerfully declares: “If you try to grab this pussy cat / This pussy grab you back ” which is a clear response to President Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” statement revealed from his pre-POTUS days and now haunting him eternally.  “I Got The Juice” is like an amped up “Holler Back Girl”, the femme-fatale tune recorded in 2004 by Gwen Stefani. And like Stephani, Monae does not merely holler back. If Trump could forego the catcall and move straight to the crotch grab, you know the appropriate feminist response is neither meek nor apologetic.

An incredible rapper in her own right, Monae’s lyricism in “Django Jane” is punch-you-in-the-gut good. A Guardian article entitled “You Don’t Own Or Control Me” looks closely at how personal and political apex in “Django Jane”, described as “Monáe’s rallying cry, a rebellious protest anthem for women in general (“We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth,” she sings….[S]he puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” It’s one of Monáe’s most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence “cerebral”, her music “controlled”, her “constructed” look.” The song may be more aptly described as a battle cry, in that the speaker militantly confront the treatment of Black Americans, and particularly Black women. Monae says that Django is ‘a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.'”

In trying to wrap up this post, I’ll just say: give this record a spin. Be blown away by the method and the message.  Want to hear the MOST PRINCE-Y song on the album? Check out “Make Me Feel”: the Prince undertones and overtones are undeniable in the funk guitar rhythm and Monae’s vocal gymnastics – especially when Monae sings “good God / I can’t help it / Ah!”

In saving the best for last, Monae reserves the final dedication in her album notes for Prince-her muse and mentor-and you can’t help but think about how proud he would be of her incredible accomplishment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

What would you do to save your family? To break free of the narrow path set before you? Would you be able to make the sacrifice, stand against the terrible fear? What about the people affected by your actions? Would you have the courage to step forward and make amends?

In Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik we follow three young women as they face these difficult questions. Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders. While her grandfather is very successful, her father is not and she is forced to take over their business. Wanda is the daughter of a poor woodsman who takes out his anger and frustration on his surviving children, gambling and drinking away what little money they have and forcing her to work off his debt. And Irina is the daughter of a powerful Duke, disappointingly plain and awkward with no suitors and no future. These three lives, seemingly with little or no connection, weave and entwine as they each find their purpose and in the process save their country.

Events are set into motion when Miryem, who turns out to be very good at collecting debts and turning a profit, boasts that she can turn silver into gold. This catches the attention of the King of the Staryk, whose northern winter kingdom is slowly engulfing the surrounding lands, bringing poverty and hardship. The Staryk demands that Miryem turn a handful of silver coins into gold and in exchange, agrees (reluctantly) to make her his (also reluctant) Queen. And from that beginning, spins the tale.

Beautifully written, Novik creates a complex, convincing world that is part fantasy, part dark fairy-tale, part love story, part heroic quest with a dash of Game of Thrones (without the Red Wedding or incest, thank goodness) There are many “real” aspects (Miryem and her family are Jewish and experience much of the same history as in our world and the country, with it’s ever encroaching winter, feels like Siberia) but it is also uniquely it’s own. One caution – the narrator of the book changes frequently and other than a small symbol before each change, there is no indication of whose point-of-view you are now reading. It can be momentarily confusing but I found that it became clear quickly. Don’t let this slight challenge keep you away from this mesmerizing and suspenseful novel!

Online Reading Challenge – August

It’s August already, Reading Fans! Time to take a look at our next challenge!

This month we’re exploring the Edwardian Era. Technically, the Edwardian Era lasted from 1901 to 1910, which is the time that Edward VII ruled England following the death of Queen Victoria. However, it is popularly considered to run from the 1890s to the start of World War I in 1914.

The coming of war lends a certain bittersweet feeling to this time period, the last golden days of the English Empire and the innocence that would soon be shattered. The Summer Before the War by Simonson embodies this “on the brink” time beautifully, set in a small English village. Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford is a novel about the intrigues of a wealthy family and their servants (think Downton Abbey). Rutherford Park by Cooke is another English country house family drama set in this time period.

It’s not all about the landed gentry in England though. The Titanic sank in 1912 and there is lots of fiction and non-fiction about the sinking and its consequences. The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott is gives us a personal account of the disaster and the aftermath when an accomplished seamstress joins a famous fashion designer on the Titanic as her personal maid. Or try A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, a classic about the ships final hours.

Other notable events during this time include the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (The Wright Brothers by David McCullough) and the golden age of arctic exploration (Shackleton’s Heroes by Wilson McOrst). American classics by E.M. Forster (Howard’s End and A Room With a View) or Edith Wharton (The Buccaneers) are great choices. For mystery lovers, check out the Molly Murphy series by Rhys Bowen.

I am planning on reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr about the beginnings of forensic science set in New York City. This is a little outside of my comfort zone, so we’ll see how it goes!

What about you – what will you be reading this month?

Online Reading Challenge – July Wrap-Up

Hello Reading Challengers!

How did your reading go in July? Did you read something wonderful set during the time of Westward Expansion?

I set out to read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Real world disclaimer here: I haven’t finished it yet. But – but! – not because I didn’t like it – in fact I’m loving it! It’s just that other obligations got in the way. I have every intention of finishing it and soon. I’m about a third of the way through, so here are my impressions so far and why I’m loving it so much.

Undaunted Courage is about Lewis and Clark’s “voyage of discovery” when they crossed the western half the North American continent, beyond the known frontier. Before their journey, most of the information about the land was made up of myths and legends and less-than-reliable reports of itinerant fur trappers.

The book opens with an in-depth look at Meriwether Lewis’ youth and upbringing in Virginia where he managed his family’s plantation. He also served in the militia and then worked as an aide to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson who was a neighbor back in Virginia. I had not realized how well Jefferson and Lewis knew each other, and how much they worked together. At first, already pressed for time, I had planned to skim this part of the book, thinking it would be dull but it isn’t! It’s fascinating! It shows the unique circumstances that shaped Lewis, what they taught him, how they influenced his life viewpoint and how one day they would prepare him for this great adventure. It is also a eye-opening insight into how and why the Founding Fathers thought and operated. It’s like reading about the building blocks of this new nation that would become America.

Jefferson, President, diplomat and political strategist, was also an enthusiastic amateur scientist. He wanted to create friendly relations with the Indians and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, but he also desperately wished to find out what the land was like – the soil, the weather, the plants and the animals. Jefferson, like most scientists of his day, believed that mastodons still roamed the land, that there were active volcanoes and that the mountain range between the Mississippi River and the Pacific was no higher than the Appalachians.

Lewis was the perfect choice to lead the expedition and Jefferson undertook to teach him as much science as possible before he left including astronomy, rudimentary medicine, botany, preservation of specimens and map making. Lewis engaged an army friend William Clark (brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark) as co-commander and, after a great deal of planning and several setbacks the Corps of Discovery set off.

I’ve just read to the part where they will make their first winter camp, about six months into the journey. They have encountered the Sioux and other tribes, have already discovered many new species of birds, animals and plants and have seen sights never before known to white Americans. Lewis writes about flocks of carrier pigeons so numerous they block out the sun, of the great migration of buffalo, elk and antelope – something not seen by a living person for 100 years now, plentiful game and fruit, endless rolling prairie under a sea of grass. I try to imagine what they must have seen, the wildlife, the endless prairie untouched by fences or roads and am awed (I also think about the difficulty of traveling where there are no roads, no hotels, no GPS and progress on a good day was 30 miles and am grateful to living in the present.)

It’s kind of a cliffhanger that I’ve left it at – after this winter camp they will venture into truly unknown territory – so yes, I look forward to reading the rest of this adventure. What about you? What adventure did you read about this month?

 

 

My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes

My Lisbon: A Cookbook from Portugal’s City of Light by Nuno Mendes is an example of cookbook as travelogue.  It’s a joy to peruse.  Mendes is an engaging writer; his prose captures the mood and spirit of Lisbon. Interspersed with recipes are his vignettes of life in Portugal – Lisbon in particular.  Not only is the text authentic and breezy, but the photos are so spontaneous – you feel as if you’ve glimpsed private moments in the public spaces of this urban, yet warm and relaxed  city.  The oldest part of Lisbon, Alfama, is particularly intimate – the streets are so narrow and there is often virtually no space between the public street and a family’s private living area beyond a thin wall or window. Laundry is literally aired  in public; just look above you!

Whenever I visit a new city or country, I have so many questions. Why do  they do this? What’s the history of that?  This book is ideal for solving these mysteries. After a recent visit to Lisbon, I wanted to know more about why lisboetas decorate the facades of their houses and restaurants with Christmas decorations  – in April. It has to do with the festival of Santo Antonio in which sardinhas (sardines) are enthusiastically celebrated – cooked, eaten and enjoyed in the streets and restaurants.

I wanted to know the story behind the elegantly shabby azulejo (tile) on its buildings. As a native, Mendes speaks with authority and experience about the smells, tastes and sounds of a city that has been dependent on the sea for hundreds of years. Mendes is also a restaurateur so he provides fascinating detail about  the stories behind local ingredients and specialties  (salt, sardines, ham, and custard and more). Many times these stories relate to Portugal’s glory days in the 15th and 16th centuries when its navigators ruled the oceans and claimed vast portions of the globe for their country.

I’ve devoured many guidebooks, dvds, and travelogues about Portugal, but, to me, this book truly captures what’s special about this magical city.

Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story on DVD

Guest post by Laura V.

After watching Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, I’m left to wonder what Hedy Lamarr would have become had she been born 50 or 75 years later. Instead of being valued solely for her appearance, would she have been given the opportunity to use her genius to its full capacity? What could the world now be like with a compassionate and caring woman at the engineering helm of invention? Could she have been another Einstein or Edison? Her intellect seems to have been squandered and that’s a shame.

Along with an unearthed tape-recorded phone interview with Lamarr, the filmmakers interview her children, a friend, Hollywood notables, and her granddaughter to compile a portrait of this complex woman. Lamarr was an Austrian Jew with an inquisitive, mechanical-engineering mind from an early age. She was impacted indirectly by the rise of Adolph Hitler before making her way to the United States via London. Even on the strategically-booked boat ride to the US, she leveraged her captivating presence to land a Hollywood contract with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and showed her fortitude by negotiating for higher pay.

In a time still under the slowly-loosening grip of the Victorian era, a film she made while a teen in Austria, and that was scandalous for its time, Ecstasy, continued to haunt her most of her career.  It appears she was rarely given roles she was capable of and was even cast in demeaning roles because of her “reputation.” Early on she was a devoted mother, but like so many other women who were treated as commodities by Hollywood moguls, she was given drugs for various reasons. This lead to her becoming moody and abusive.

Lamarr seemed to have a complicated relationship with her image. She certainly used it to her advantage but was also resentful about not getting the recognition she thought she deserved for her intellect also because of her image. She and musician George Antheil invented and patented “frequency hopping,” now called spread-spectrum technology and used in Bluetooth, GPS, and military applications but never saw a dime for her efforts. She seemed to ultimately buy into the world’s superficial perception of her, of her value only as the glamorous Hollywood bombshell, with her many plastic surgeries and refusal to appear in public at the end of her life.

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