Does orgasm have a history? Queer theorist Annamarie Jagose’s new book attempts to answer this question with a carefully researched journey through the orgasm’s 20th century fortunes, from the the marriage manuals extolling simultaneous orgasm to the vicissitudes of faked orgasm.
One common complaint leveled at modern intersectional feminism—particularly academic feminism and Women’s Studies—is that feminism that doesn’t exclusively focus on issues of concern to white, middle class, straight and able-bodied women is “too divisive” and “distracts” from the issues on which “all feminists” can apparently agree. The latest iteration of this argument has come up in the controversy over British journalist and feminist Caitlin Moran’s support of American actress and writer Lena Dunham, which culminated in Moran’s rather spectacularly insensitive display of non-concern for women of color when asked on Twitter about Dunham’s HBO series Girls and media representation. While further commentary on this incident is beyond the scope of this review, Moran’s inability to look before she Tweets and the backlash spawned because of her blasé attitude toward women of color brings into stark relief why feminism needs to integrate perspectives other than those of women whom the popular feminist movement—and the mainstream media–has rewarded with book deals, high-profile commentary and blogging gigs, and “star” or expert status.
The Quest For the Historical Satan, Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernandez, Fortress 2011.
It’s a familiar image to most people in (post) Christian societies – the red, pitchforked Satan. but how did we get such an image, and what does it mean for the way we perceive political and religious enemies? In their fascinating book The Quest for the Historical Satan, theologians Miguel De La Torre and Albert Hernandez trace the development of the idea of Satan and its many multifarious, nefarious uses.
The Politics of Down Syndrome (Kieron Smith, Zer0, 2011) is an attempt at a primer on some of the social, ethical, and political issues that surround Down syndrome. With chapters on prenatal diagnosis, education, ‘comedy’ that trades on disability as a punchline, and how the personal becomes political, Smith concludes with a discussion on what members of society can do to address ableism and inequality.
The text, unfortunately, has a number of shortcomings. For people unfamiliar with the issues Smith discusses, the excellent sourcing and detailed resource list at the conclusion of the book may make a jumping-off point to more research and exploration not just of Down syndrome, but of disability issues in general. In this sense, it succeeds as a very general broad overview of the topic, which is Smith’s stated intent in the introduction. However, there are some glaring absences in the book that may make it inadequate even for this purpose.
Smith claims that ‘There are numerous medical and self-help titles, there is also a plentiful supply of books that address disability from an academic standpoint – this aims to be neither of these, but rather a political title…’ and stresses that Down syndrome is a political and social issue, not a personal one. On this score, I agree, but Smith’s approach to the discussion contains some fundamental issues.
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail, 2011) is one of the more outstanding entries on this year’s Booker Prize longlist. A lyrical, complex, layered narrative of friendship, betrayal, and jazz, the book approaches well-worn narrative ground with a fresh perspective. Edugyan is clearly an author to watch, as her previous work, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was equally stunning and quickly captured international attention after its release in 2004.
Western Europe in 1940 is hardly untrod territory for fiction; authors and readers keep returning to the Second World War and it’s starting to feel like a stale, cheap, easy way out for storytelling. Plop your characters in Berlin or Paris in 1940 and have at it. Foreshadowing included free of charge. Likewise, the suppression of jazz in Berlin in the 1930s and early 1940s is not an entirely new choice of subject. Half Blood Blues managed to bring something new to both settings, however, illustrating that there is more to explore from this period of history.
The tale opens as our narrator, Sid Griffiths, describes the arrest of fellow musician Hieronymous Falk, an up and comer in Paris. Readers are taken back and forth between 1930s-1940s Berlin and later Paris, and Berlin in 1992, three years after the fall of the wall, where Griffiths attends a documentary screening highlighting Falk’s life. It is here that the narrative constructed by Griffiths starts to fall apart, and readers learn that the surface story is not what it seems.
It’s the end of an era. The entertainment which has stretched across books, movies, and countless marketing tie-ins, which has captivated children and adults for well over a decade and which has, for better or worse, managed to become the defining myth for an entire generation, is winding to its close. I speak, of course, of the Hermione Granger series, by Joanne Rowling.
So, before she goes away for good, let us sing the praises of Hermione. A generation could not have asked for a better role model. Looking back over the series — from Hermione Granger and the Philosopher’s Stone through to Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows — the startling thing about it is how original it is. It’s what inspires your respect for Rowling: She could only have written the Hermione Granger by refusing to take the easy way out.
For starters, she gave us a female lead. As difficult as it is to imagine, Rowling was pressured to revise her initial drafts to make the lead wizard male. “More universal,” they said. “Nobody’s going to follow a female character for 4,000 pages,” they said. “Girls don’t buy books,” they said, “and boys won’t buy books about them.” But Rowling proved them wrong. She was even asked to hide her own gender, and to publish her books under a pen name, so that children wouldn’t run screaming at the thought of reading something by a lady. But Joanne Rowling never bowed to the forces of crass commercialism. She will forever be “Joanne Rowling,” and the Hermione Granger series will always be Hermione’s show.
Su Tong, Madwoman on the Bridge, Transworld Publishers, 2008.
Su Tong is a Chinese author who has gained international recognition for his work, recently being nominated for the Man Booker International Prize awarded to Philip Roth in controversial circumstances. Wives and Concubines, later adapted into Raise the Red Lantern, is perhaps his most famous works in the West. Madwoman On the Bridge, translated from Josh Stenberg, is a collection of sparse, elegant short stories that hint at a fantastic literary outpouring in contemporary China. The availability of his works in translation is a source of much delight; these are stories that will sneak into the back of your brain and lurk there long after you are finished reading.
Many of the stories are slightly macabre, and it’s an overall theme in the book as a whole; ‘How the Ceremony Ends’ was a particular favourite of mine that exemplifies the almost playfully grotesque nature of the tales in this collection. A folklorist travels to a rural village to study an unusual tradition, and asks the villagers to enact it for him, finding himself sucked into the narrative. The villagers, caught up in the revival of an old custom, carry it to its logical conclusion and bring the reader along with them. Other characters in the story are surprisingly prosaic about its outcome, treating it as nothing more than an interesting curiosity.
The same unsettling physicality comes up in ‘The Giant Baby,’ which also underscores another theme that runs through these stories, one of poor communication, where characters say one thing and mean another, or operate in entirely different words. The titular character in ‘The Madwoman on the Bridge’ and the girl in ‘The Water Demon’ both appear to be inhabiting a place beyond reality, but to the discomfort of other characters, their world often intersects with the mundane one to reach and touch the people who would deny or exploit them. In ‘On Saturdays,’ the inability to communicate ruptures a friendship and the characters live in a sense of unresolved, lingering regret.
Lee-Ann Monk, Attending Madness: at work in the Australian colonial asylum, Rudopi, 2008.
In Attending Madness (Rodopi, 2008), Lee-Ann Monk explores the lives and identities of asylum attendants working in Australia in the 1870s, placing their role within a larger international context as well as delving into the daily lives of attendants in Victoria. Monk’s book highlights an area of deficiency in this particular area of scholarship; the narrative about 19th century asylum attendants as simplistic, brutish people with limited qualifications has been widely accepted by students of this era. Attending Madness paints a very different picture, showing how their roles as professionals evolved within the shifting asylum movement of the late 19th century. Far from simply being precursors to psychiatric nurses, asylum attendants had a very specific place.
Popular perception of 19th century asylums often consists of holding facilities where people were stored away from society, for lack of a better place to put them. As Monk points out, a radical shift started to occur in the late 19th century, with a transition from asylums as facilities to lock up people with mental illness to more curative and therapeutic institutions. Monk unfortunately doesn’t devote very much analysis to exploring how and why people were classified with mental illness, as this is not the subject of her work - her focus on attendants means that readers miss some important contextual discussions, like the use of institutionalisation to silence and isolate women who went against their families.
If there is one thing that is obvious from Karen Joy Fowler’s work to date, it is that she likes books. The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she is chiefly known (it spent quite some time on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie in 2007) is an engagement with the modern romance genre as well as Austen’s novels. The Case of the Imaginary Detective, also published as Wit’s End, is a crime novel about crime novels. Sarah Canary, her first book, seems to change genre with each person who discusses it.
What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.