Thursday, 5 March 2015

Spotlight: 'A Life of the Twentieth Century' by Irene Even

I am honoured to be part of the blog tour for Irene Even's amazing book, A Life of the Twentieth Century, organised by iReadBookTours. Telling her own story and that of millions of others through Aya, Even explored the twentieth century in her novel. 
A Life of the Twentieth Century is the story of Aya, who lived through the loss of her parents before the age of 3. At the age of twelve she was sent to a boarding school in Budapest, that closed after one year, because the Nazi army marched into the city. 
Aya was left totally alone to face the Nazi occupation, and to experience all the horrors of the war. She faced many life threatening situations, such as prison, bombardment or even the possibility of being executed on the spot, without really comprehending the gravity of it all.
The end of the war was supposed to mean liberation, the return of hope and freedom for most people, however it didn't happen for Aya, who was part of a youth group on her way to Palestine. The destination of this youth group was to reach Italy and the Jewish Brigade. They crossed the Alps on foot from Austria to reach Italy. 
As they reached their destination Aya met a soldier from the Jewish Brigade, who was supposed to be her Hero, her Saviour, but turned out to be the devil incarnate. From day one, this soldier of the Jewish brigade took control of Aya's life when she was only 15 years old.
After divorce, destitute and once again alone, she had no direction and almost no hope, when from deep inside her a small voice said; go back to school. It took all her courage to apply to university, where she was accepted and after 5 year was granted a B.A. and a Diploma of Teaching. She spent the rest of her life teaching, and as she contemplated her life she said to herself that if she had had all the choices in the world, she would have chosen teaching.
A Life in the Twentieth Century sounds absolutely fascinating and it a book I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in the happenings of the last century. We're lucky enough to still have amongst us people who have lived through the Second World War and helped the world rebuild afterwards and we should take advantage of that.

Author info:

Irene Even was born in Hungary. As a child she lived through the Second World War, using false papers to survive. After the war, she immigrated to Palestine, lived in a Kibbutz, then later married and immigrated to Canada with her family. She returned to Israel to teach English and remained there for twenty-two years. Having written her memoir, A Life of the Twentieth Century, she now lives in retirement in Montreal.

You can buy this book at:

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Love-Triangles and What They Say About Women

Love triangle
Source: Dreamstime Stock Images
We all know the love-triangle. We can see it coming for pages and pages and let's be honest, it is hardly ever surprising anymore. Although I am sure it can be very entertaining to read and has been used effectively in some books, I think that in most cases it is extremely damaging. So why is it still used so much and what has become one of its major consequences?

As Deirdre Johnson argued in her 2010 book Love: Bondage or Liberation? , there are two types of (literary) love triangles:
'there is the rivalrous triangle, where the lover is competing with a rival for the love of the beloved, and the split-object triangle, where a lover has split their attention between two love objects.' p.6 (London, 2010)
It is especially the former, the rivalrous triangle, which emerges in a lot of contemporary, and especially YA, fiction. Literature has always centred around that which is dramatic and tragic, causing tension and conflict, since it is in conflict that humans reveal most about themselves. In itself, this is nothing bad, yet the idea of the love-triangle has been intrinsically linked with damaging female stereotypes which are thus continued.

Source: Goodreads
In his fascinating book, Games People Play (Penguin, 2010), Eric Berne termed this conflict as 'Let's You and Him Fight', LYAHF for short. What his theory considered was that this love-triangle, in its rivalrous form, 'is essentially feminine' (p.108) in nature, always based on a woman and her body being the reward in a fight between two men over her. Roughly, Berne saw two possible set ups for this "game" with either the woman initiating it or society doing so, the woman being helpless to oppose becoming the winner's prize. A potential third set-up saw a woman setting up a competition between two men and then running off with a third. I hope you can start to see why this is problematic. Not only does this trope consider women as an object and prize, it also presents them as manipulative in love. Underlying to this trope is the idea that women enjoy manipulating men and toying with their emotions, only to afterwards become utterly passive.

One of the most tragic literary "love-triangles", in its truest and saddest sense, is from Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. The sexual double standard which perpetrates the novel cannot be missed. For Alec d'Urbervilles, Tess is something he can take whenever he pleases, whereas to Angel Clare, Tess is something to be worshiped until she, inevitably, falls off of her constructed pedestal. Neither of the two men in this love-game arranged by society see the woman for who she really is or take the time to really listen to her and respect her voice. She is judged for her, forced, sexuality, whereas male sexuality is accepted without question. And naturally Tess is the only real victim of this double standard. If you think that this double standard is singular to Tess of the d'Urbervilles or was gotten rid of by the first waves of feminism, you are sadly mistaken.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Tuesday Intros & Teaser Tuesdays - 'The Astronaut Wives Club' by Lily Koppel

This week I'm using a book I'm really excited about for these memes. I have had it on my Kindle for ages and always saved it for a special time, but I've decided that now is simply the time to get started. This book is The Astronaut Wives Club  by Lily Koppel. One of my favourite films is 'The Right Stuff', about America's first astronauts, and I always loved the women in it, so this read should be right up my alley.

In a thoroughly researched page-turner that transports readers back to the beginnings of our space race, bestselling author Lily Koppel reveals for the first time the stories and secrets of America's unsung heroes-the wives of our original astronauts.
As America's Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons, donning sherbet-swirled Pucci dresses and lacquering their hair into extravagant rocket styles.
Annie Glenn, with her picture-perfect marriage and many magazine features, was the envy of the other wives; platinum-blonde bombshell Rene Carpenter was proclaimed JFK's favorite; Betty Grissom worried her husband was having affairs; Louise Shepard just wanted to be left alone; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived on base with a dirty secret. With each spectacular launch, they worried they might never see their husbands again. Together they formed the Astronaut Wives Club.
A fascinating, dishy and moving read, , set against the backdrop of the Space Age and a country that would be forever changed by it, THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB tells the real story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history.
Tuesday Intros is hosted by Diane over atBibliophile by the Sea and Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading.

'They had endured years of waking up alone, making their kids breakfast, taking them to school and picking them up, fixing dinner and kissing them good night, promising that Daddy was thinking of them all the time. There had been lonely nights when they fell asleep wondering how they were going to get by on their husbands' measly pay for another month. During tours of duty in World War II or Korea or both, their husbands had nearly become mirages. Navy deployment had taken their men away on six to nine month cruises to the far corners of the Earth. They'd each wait for half a year imagining their man, trying not to forget what he looked like, only to have him come home hungry and tired. They'd miss him even before he left.' 2%
I love the sound of the beginning because not only does it remind you that this was a different time which meant a different "role" for women, but also that the life of the wife of a test pilot was even harder.

TeaserTuesdays2014e'No matter what a wife had to sweep under the carpet, keeping a peaceful marriage was not just an imperative of American womanhood, but in this day when everything could be wiped out at the push of a button, a matter of national security. The seven Astrowives would show them the way,' 16%
I love how unapologetically Koppel criticizes American society in this book. It's really interesting and it makes you feel very sorry for these women who were pushed into the limelight when their husbands decided to accept a job.

So, that's what I'm reading! What are you teasing us with today?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: 'The Librarian' by Mikhail Elizarov, Andrew Bromfield

The LibrarianSometimes a blurb is so fascinating that you simply have to pick up the book and devour it. Every reader has felt inspired and empowered by a book at some point, but what if books genuinely gave you superpowers? I guess you'll have to read The Librarian  to figure out what would happen next.

Pub. Date: 10/02/2015
Publisher: Pushkin Press

If Ryu Murakami had written War and Peace.
As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story.
Usually you have a pretty good idea what a book holds in store for you when you begin it. You have read the blurb, you have assessed the cover and maybe you already know the author as well. Starting The Librarian I thought I knew what I was up for but Elizarov proved me completely wrong. Starting off by introducing Gromov and some of Russia's librarians the reader feels as if they have been dropped into a completely unknown world which is shocking and fascinating. On the one hand this introduction is really interesting, on the other hand it requires some determination to stick with what sounds, at times, like a textbook. Not until the main narrator, Alexei, comes in does the reader find some solid footing in the narrative. In an interesting twist, the reader already knows more about this world of librarians and special books than Alexei himself, meaning that the relationship between Alexei and the reader is continuously interesting. When the relationship between a reader and his protagonist is developed in this way it means the reader can be independent of him or her, making up their own mind about what's happening in the narrative. This also means that the reader can choose to despise the protagonist, which is a big risk to take for the author.

Elizarov's novel works on a number of different levels. Not only do we explore a man's psyche, we also investigate the power of words and get a glimpse into the political and social landscape of Russia post-Stalin. Elizarov uses these different levels to craft a narrative that is incredibly Kafka-esque, while still somehow making sense. Added to this narrative is quite some violence, at times rather graphic, which is something that I wasn't quite expecting but seems logical when you think of the passion people show for "normal" books every single day. What makes this violence acceptable is that the essence of Elizarov's novel is utterly fascinating. Words have always had enormous power and those who say that a picture is worth a thousand words has to be thinking of a very special picture. The idea that this specific set of books has not only its own power but also the ability to give power to others is simple and yet intricate. Elizarov thinks of all the details; how does it work with copies of the book, how about public readings, etc. Words have been the cause of all major conflicts in the world, whether those conflicts have been over religious texts or inspired by rousing and passionate speeches.

Elizarov explains much while leaving enough unsaid for the novel to be mysterious until the last page. There are revelations and twists in almost every chapter and the richness with which Elizarov paints his world means none of these twists seem unfounded. Although I really enjoyed The Librarian I won't be rereading it for a while. Knowing the twists and turns and all the background information, it would be hard to go back to it and experience the same kind of surprise. There are definitely new details to be discovered though. Andrew Bromfield does a great job at translating Elizarov's prose, maintaining his tone throughout. Whether the novel is waxing lyrical over the Motherland or describing a massacre, Bromfield's translation keeps the reader engaged and passionate.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Elizarov's The Librarian. It is unlike most of today's novels, sparing the readers none of the details while showering them with stunning image after stunning image. I would definitely recommend this to fans of Russian literature and those looking for a challenging and rewarding read.

Weekly Overview

This has been both a stressful and a beautiful week. On the one hand I had a dissertation meeting on Tuesday for which I had to write 4000 words, but on the other hand we went to see To Kill A Mockingbird in the Nottingham Royal Theatre, which was absolutely amazing! Thankfully I sort of managed to blog in between those events.

Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture
I'm pretty pleased with everything this week, it was only a shame I disliked Thoughtful so much, but I will be writing a post about why at some point! How was your week?

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Review: 'Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia' by Samuel Johnson

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford World's Classics)I haven't reviewed a university read in quite a while, even if those are the books that tend to make me think the most. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia is a compulsory read for an 18th century lit-module and I am really glad to have read it.
Rasselas and his companions escape the pleasures of the "happy valley" in order to make their "choice of life." By witnessing the misfortunes and miseries of others they come to understand the nature of happiness, and value it more highly. Their travels and enquiries raise important practical and philosophical questions concerning many aspects of the human condition, including the business of a poet, the stability of reason, the immortality of the soul, and how to find contentment. Johnson's adaptation of the popular oriental tale displays his usual wit and perceptiveness; skeptical and probing, his tale nevertheless suggests that wisdom and self-knowledge need not be entirely beyond reach.
Rasselas can hardly qualify as a novel. There is no real sense of plot development or direction, the characters all feel like they're mouth-pieces for Johnson without any real differences between them and yet there is something fascinating about it. Johnson's apologue works on the basis that its main characters do not change their opinion. They doggedly chase after the answer to the question 'what choice of life' makes one happy?'. If they gave up on that search, Rasselas would end. As Rasselas, Nekayah, Imlac and Pekuah hop through the Middle-East and Egypt, the reader can't help but be sucked into their hope to find 'the choice of life'. What if suddenly they find the answer on the last page? It is a credit to Johnson's writing that you get so sucked into this tale and these characters, despite the fact that you know the answer to their question already.

Johnson was "inspired" to write Rasselas by his dislike for complacency. He felt, and I am tempted to agree with him, that people who grew too complacent with their lives became stagnant. Written and ublished during the late eighteenth-century, Johnson doubtlessly thought about the debates surrounding free will and the influence of God in daily life. Rasselas and his crew are forced to deal with many of these issues as well, especially the former. Originally, they lived in the Happy Valley in which each of their wishes is granted immediately and where each desire is fulfilled on the spot. Could you get closer to Paradise? As Johnson argues throughout Rasselas, never having to strife towards anything and not knowing any hardships leads to a static life in which nothing ever changes, for the good or the bad. I thought Johnson's exploration of life on the different levels was really interesting. Rasselas also had one of the best portrayals of mental illness which I've read in an eighteenth-century book. Any mockery of it is immediately corrected and Johnson deals with it with such care you can't help but be fond of him for it.

What I really enjoyed was the active role of women within the narrative. On the one hand, Nekayah and Pekuah are restricted to investigating marriage and being kidnapped, but Rasselas takes his sister's opinions seriously and discusses them in the same way as he would with anyone else. She also seems quicker to catch onto the fact that happiness can't be achieved completely and utterly with just one choice. Pekuah, her maid, goes on quite a journey herself and although, on the one hand, it seems a bit stereotypical, it also allows for her to become more aware of herself as a person.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

Johnson's Rasselas is extremely interesting as a way to get yourself thinking about happiness and your own life. Are you expecting to find 'the choice of life' and holding out being happy because of it? Although his writing may at times feel a bit contrived, it is definitely interesting.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Friday Memes and the 'Idols of Perversity' by Bram Dijkstra

Alison Can Read Feature & FollowWhy is it almost March? I mean, how did this happen? 2015 Only just started and now we're in the 3rd month, which would mean we're about to finish the first quarter of this year... Anyway, let's move on with the memes! Follow Friday is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee. This week's question was suggested by Alison herself:

Your house is burning down and you have time to select three books you own to take with you. What three books?

Noooo! This is a dreadful question, because how do you actually choose? I don't have children but I'd imagine it would be like choosing between them! I could chicken out and say I have a Kindle and therefore would just bring that one. However, I have decided to come to a decision. I would bring The Master And Margarita by Bulgakov, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Beowulf: A New Translation by an anonymous poet and Seamus Heaney. That way I'd have a bit of a range of different styles and genres and I'd be fine until I got myself a new house with bookshelves to fill!

Book Beginnings is hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Friday 56 by Freda over at Freda's Voice. Last week I took out an absolutely brilliant book from the library, which has made me slightly despair at the representations of women in art during the last three centuries. So far I have only worked my through the eighteenth century but there have already been so many realizations on my end that I will definitely keep going. This book is Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. Long title, but absolutely fascinating.
Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture
At the turn of the century, an unprecedented attack on women erupted in virtually every aspect of culture: literary, artistic, scientific, and philosophic. Throughout Europe and America, artists and intellectuals banded together to portray women as static and unindividuated beings who functioned solely in a sexual and reproductive capacity, thus formulating many of the anti-feminine platitudes that today still constrain women's potential. 
Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity explores the nature and development of turn-of-the-century misogyny in the works of hundreds of writers, artists, and scientists, including Zola, Strindberg, Wedekind, Henry James, Rossetti, Renoir, Moreau, Klimt, Darwin, and Spencer. Dijkstra demonstrates that the most prejudicial aspects of Evolutionary Theory helped to justify this wave of anti-feminine sentiment. The theory claimed that the female of the species could not participate in the great evolutionary process that would guide the intellectual male to his ultimate, predestined role as a disembodied spiritual essence. Darwinists argued that women hindered this process by their willingness to lure men back to a sham paradise of erotic materialism. To protect the male's continued evolution, artists and intellectuals produced a flood of pseudo-scientific tracts, novels, and paintings which warned the world's males of the evils lying beneath the surface elegance of woman's tempting skin.
Reproducing hundreds of pictures from the period and including in-depth discussions of such key works as Dracula and Venus in Furs, this fascinating book not only exposes the crucial links between misogyny then and now, but also connects it to the racism and anti-semitism that led to catastrophic genocidal delusions in the first half of the twentieth century. Crossing the conventional boundaries of art history, sociology, the history of scientific theory, and literary analysis, Dijkstra unveils a startling view of a grim and largely one-sided war on women still being fought today.
I know, it sounds a bit heavy, but it is worth it!

'Her eyes glazed with the terror of understanding. The pallor of sudden knowledge has settled on her face. A paralyzing consciousness of her entrapment has turned her body into a wedge of fear. Wracked by a dark foreboding, she pits the force of newborn moral responsibility against the soul-destructive lure of the senses. ... William Holman Hunt undoubtedly meant to shock his female viewers into virtuous conformity by means of this painted melodrama of sin and sudden recognition titled 'The Awakening Conscience'.' p.1
I decided to skip part of Dijkstra's description of the painting in order to show you how he uses his detailed analysis to support his arguments. The F56 is one which, when I read it,

F56: (Dijkstra here quotes an anonymous reviewer of Waterhouse's painting 'St. Eulalia'.)
'The artist's conception is full of power and originality. Its whole force is centered in the pathetic dignity of the outstretched figure, so beautiful in its helplessness and pure serenity, so affecting in its forlorn and wintry shroud, so noble in the grace and strength of its presentment. The tone of the dark, almost livid flesh is finely realized, and the drawing of the foreshortened figure displays masterly skill; the disposition of the body and the curved of the lower limbs are circumstances of real subtlety of design in this beautiful composition.' p.56
The 19th century culture cultivated the idea of weak, diseased and dead women as beautiful, because it showed their submission to men and the patriarchy at its fullest. Anorexia also blossomed around this time, to allow women to look as weak and ill as possible. When I look at the painting I see a young woman exposed and violated, rather than something to aspire to.

Sorry to end the post on such a down-note, but I think Idols of Perversity is a really important book! What are you reading atm? And which books would you safe from a house-fire?