February 2007


Cross Stitch“I had both hands beneath its jaw now. The fingers of one hand were actually in its mouth. I could feel a crushing sting across my gloved knuckles, but ignored it as I forced the hairy head back, and back again, using the angle of the wall as a fulcrum for the lever of the beast’s body. I thought my arms would break, but this was the only chance.

There was no audible noise, but I felt the reverberation through the whole body as the neck snapped. The straining limbs – and the bladder – at once relaxed. The intolerable strain on my arms released, I dropped, as limp as the dying wolf. I could feel the beast’s heart, the only part still capable of a death struggle, fibrillating beneath my cheek. The stringy fur stank of ammonia and soggy hair. I wanted to move away, but could not.”

The premise of this book is that the heroine, Claire Randall, is a woman who, after serving as a nurse during the second world war and then going for a second honeymoon with the husband from whom she has long been separated, is catapulted through time by the ancient magic of standing stones in the Scottish highlands. She ends up in the middle of the eighteenth century, caught up in skirmishes between the Scottish clansmen and the English redcoats in the time shortly before the Battle of Culloden.

Unfortunately, the author cannot help but include a good deal of romantic interest, portraying Claire as torn between her love for her 1940s husband Frank and her passion for the dashing young Highlander Jamie Fraser who she meets in the 1740s. Nor can she help including a good deal of Claire being rescued from her assorted misadventures by Jamie and by other men. There is also an episode in which Claire is beaten – I think they call it “lawful chastisement” – the outcome of which is that Claire, eventually, accepts the justice of her punishment: I think it is fair to say that I have pretty mixed feelings about this.

However, all that said, Claire is pretty feisty herself. She stands up to Jamie and to the other clansmen with amazing ferocity and fury. She often keeps up with them despite physical disadvantages, by sheer guts and bloodymindedness. She swears like a trooper. She kills a man who is trying to rape her (she suffers numerous attempted rapes), and two other men who threaten her and Jamie’s escape from a barbaric English prison. Putting her nursing skills to good use, she heals and mends battle wounds that would drive most of us to faint. At one point she is on the brink of being drowned in a witch trial and is rescued both by Jamie but also by the heroism of her fellow accused, the murderous Geillie Duncan. She kills a wolf with her bare hands. And, ultimately, it is Claire who rescues Jamie from the brink, and saves both his body and his soul.

On the whole, an entertaining romp, in which good more or less triumphs over evil, with the help of, among other things, some cows, and a fair bit of opium.

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy came from the library.

PrincessWhen I was twelve years of age, a woman in one of the small villages not far from Riyadh had been found guilty of adultery. She was condemned to die by stoning. Omar and our neighbours’ driver decided to go and view the spectacle.A large crowd had gathered since early morning. They were restless and waiting to see the one so wicked. Omar said that just as the crowd was becoming angry with impatience in the hot sun a young woman of about twenty-five years of age was roughly pulled out of a police car. He said she was very beautiful, just the sort of woman who would defy the laws of God.The woman’s hands were bound. Her head hung low. With an official manner, a man loudly read out her crime for the crowd to hear. A dirty rag was used to gag her mouth and a black hood was fastened around her head. She was forced to kneel. A large man, the executioner, flogged the woman upon her back fifty blows.A truck appeared, and rocks and stones were emptied in a large pile. The man who had read off the crime informed the crowd that the execution should begin. Omar said the group of people, mostly men, rushed towards the stones and began to hurl the rocks at the woman. The guilty one quickly slumped to the ground and her body jerked in all directions. Omar said the rocks continued to thud against her body for what seemed to be an interminable time. Every so often, the stones would quieten while a doctor would check the woman’s pulse. After a period of nearly two hours, the doctor finally pronounced the woman dead and the stoning ceased.”

Princess tells the story of “Sultana”, a Saudi Arabian princess. It is a true story, although a dangerous one to tell, and so some names and other details have been altered to protect the identities of people who might otherwise suffer for the truth that has been told. The book is written by Sultana’s American friend, Jean Sasson, using her diaries and notes – and was approved by her before publication. It is written in a simple, matter-of-fact style which underlines the power of what is said. There is little hyperbole in use, although it could have been forgiven much. It is very much from the same school as My Forbidden Face.

Sultana lives an unbelievably privileged life as a royal princess in the incredibly oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia. There is unlimited wealth at the disposal of her family, and she lives in complete luxury. But she, and all her friends, are in chains. Sultana is clearly proud of her nation’s history and tells wonderful stories about some of the Saudi women that she knows, and about the servants who look after her. She praises King Faisal (who died in 1975) and his wife Iffat for their efforts to advance women’s rights. There are good things for her to talk about in Saudi Arabia.

But there is a dark side to her life, and to the lives of all the women in her country, which is too black to speak about openly.

In this book, Sultana’s story, we hear of the way in which Sultana and her nine sisters are utterly subordinated to their one brother, who is spoiled and cossetted and becomes cruel while they are taught submission and obedience and subordination right from the cradle – taught to be grateful for crumbs of education or attention, and to expect nothing but what a man (father, brother, husband) may choose to give them on a whim. Much the same applies to Sultana’s mother and her three co-wives.

We learn about veiling, which stamps the child a woman, renders her a non-person, ready for marriage as soon as her menses starts. We hear how Sultana when first veiled longed to be a Bedouin woman so that she could go about with her eyes uncovered, at least, and not trip over things.

We hear about forced marriages between pubescent girls and old men, about a suicidal young bride who is saved from returning to her brutal, sadistic, old-man husband only by strenuous efforts which even then almost fail to protect her. And even then, she is saved only because he agrees to divorce her – by saying “I divorce you”. For there is little or no idea of divorce for women.

There is circumcision – slowly going out of fashion but still common. There is Halawa (ritual stripping of all body hair other than head hair and eyebrows, carried out on a bride’s wedding day). There are gifts of bloodied wedding-sheets to mothers-in-law.

There is the terrible hypocrisy of men who preach godliness and chastity while using pornography, and while using (foreign) women and girls as whores – whether they consent or no. There is the less terrible but equally hypocritical behaviour of men who claim to be compassionate, enlightened and in favour of women’s rights, but who uphold the Saudi system and in particular their right to take additional wives for the purpose of making sons.

There are the vile, appalling punishments meted out to women convicted of any offence, especially any offence against modesty or decency – such as speaking to foreign men, showing a face or any other flesh in public, having sex outside marriage, or being raped. Women are stoned. Women are drowned in family swimming pools at the hands of their fathers or other male guardians. Women are flogged. Women are locked up in “The Woman’s Room” – a windowless, soundproofed room where they live out their days in solitary confinement, food shoved through a narrow slot in the door. At best, a disgraced wife will be divorced and shipped home to her father. At best, a disgraced sister or daughter will be married off as the third wife of some ignorant, violent hick in a small, dust-choked town, out of the way.

The picture of Sultana is of a furious woman, helpless, and imprisoned. She fights tooth and nail for what dignity she can, and to do what she can for her children. But she is trapped. You feel angry that she can do nothing. Yet what can she do?

This is Sultana’s modern life. This, it seems, is Saudi Arabia.

“The myth of childhood has a [great] parallel in the myth of femininity. Both women and children were considered asexual and thus ‘purer’ than man. Their inferior status was ill-concealed under an elaborate ‘respect’. One didn’t discuss serious matters nor did one curse in front of women and children; one didn’t openly degrade them, one did it behind their backs… Both were set apart by fancy and nonfunctional clothing and were given special tasks (housework and homework respectively); both were considered mentally deficient… The pedestal of adoration on which both were set made it hard for them to breathe… In each case a physical difference had been enlarged culturally with the help of special dress, education, manners, and activity until this cultural reinforcement itself began to appear ‘natural’, even instinctive, an exaggeration process that enables easy sterotyping: the individual eventually appears to be a different kind of human animal with its own peculiar set of laws and behaviour.”

Firestone’s beginning in this work is to show how the likes of Marx and Engels and Freud were on the whole right, but that they did not go far enough. Because they thought and wrote from the male perspective, they completely missed something fundamental, which ultimately led to the failure of their work. (Unfortunately, Firestone assumes in her book that the reader has some familiarity already with the ideas she critiques, which I don’t. It didn’t mean I couldn’t understand her, it just meant that it was hard going, at least in the early chapters, and that there were probably a few key points that I just didn’t get. However, I understood enough, I think, to offer some thoughts.)

Firstly, Marx/Engels. As most people know, they were the great communist thinkers. As I understand it, they wrote copiously on the way in which over history society has progressed from primitivity through feudalism to capitalism, and they wrote about the way in which capitalists tend to use various tactics to reinforce and perpetuate the oppression of the proletariat, and they wrote that a revolution cometh – after which class and class oppression will be abolished and, with it, the need for state interference in our daily lives.

Firestone suggests that they forgot something important. They failed to see that the first “class” division, the first division of labour, is that between the sexes. The allocation of certain kinds of labour to women and other kinds to men applies at all levels of society, and results in universal oppression of women in all patriarchal societies. All men have an interest in perpetuating this female oppression, and numerous social customs and institutions serve to reinforce it: in particular the family.

The nuclear family is worst, but all forms of family serve to reinforce the oppression of women because all forms of family assign roles by sex, and oblige women to do the work of reproduction, which prevents them from advancing their own lives as far as they might otherwise be able to do. And the whole is bound up in the powerplay inevitably seen in families – with father having power over both mother and children, and mother having power over the children – a host of complicated alliances and oppressions springing up between mother and children and, again, among the children. Thus oppresion and “power-over” is what children learn about the world. Because the communist thinkers failed to appreciate this key divison in society, and failed to understand the importance of the family in perpetuating power-over and its consequent oppression, their theories and utopias could never help women to be free. And if women could never be free, class oppression can never successfully be abolished.

Secondly, Freud. Most people know that he wrote a lot about how pretty much everything that is wrong with everyone comes down to sex, specifically to various repressed incestuous sexual longings relating to the individual’s parents. (Freud also invented “penis envy”, from which women apparently suffer, stemming back to the day when as little girls they realised that they were “missing” a penis.) In short, Freud identified that every person suffers from some form of sexual repression, and that this often results in damage to their emotional or mental health. His proposed solution was to heal the person with psychoanalysis designed to make them understand and confront the subconscious issues that trouble them.

Firestone argues that Freud is right to trace emotional problems – particularly what Firestone describes as a psychosexual preoccupation with power relations – to the repression of sexual feelings that a child once experienced towards his or her parents. However, she argues that Freud was wrong to accept that this was an inevitable repression, such that we cannot address the cause but only try to treat the symptoms.

Firestone argues that in fact we can and must address the root cause, which she identifies as the incest taboos that universally arise where children grow up in biological families. If children were not related to their caregivers there would be no specific need to have concerns about the possibility of sexual relations (assuming proper consent) between members of the child’s household, and so there would be no need to be paranoid about and to repress the sexual elements of a child’s total response to its first love – the mother. Moreover, the use of power to dictate what (sexual) feeling is permissible and to repress whatever is not, results in a sexuality that is inextricably bound up in power. This psychosexuality of power is perpetutated and reinforced as each generation plays out the same game, over and over.

Once you’ve got your head around that, the rest of the book is plain sailing apart from one hard chapter about racism. The racism chapter repeats some of the Marxian / Freudian style of analysis in a way that, probably because of cultural disconnect over 35 years later and several thousand miles away, makes it really hard to tell what is real and what is metaphor, and whether any of it is still true today. It is sad that Firestone’s analysis in this chapter is so difficult to follow, because I have the feeling that she was probably saying something worth hearing. Ho-hum. The rest of the book – aside from some peculiar ideas about the “causes” of homosexuality, and a touching faith in the power of science to create a utopian world in which all people are released from any form of compulsory labour (both productive and reproductive) so as to enable society to be truly free and happy – is so good that you can probably forgive this one bad chapter.

Particular highlights in the rest of the book are: a brilliant chapter on the oppression of children – one which has started off a profound process in my head, and will no doubt surface elsewhere on this blog; a scathing analysis of romantic love and the culture of romance, which made me want to hug my little self and shout out YES, I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE; and a seriously interesting assessment of the state and direction of culture, one which is not entirely true today but which does certainly resonate.

But the key point, if you only take away one thing from the book, is this: the institution of the family must go. It is the source and cause of all oppression, including the primary oppression of women which assigns to them all reproductive labour. We must come up with other ways of living.

What does Firestone suggest?

Firestone hopes that an erosion of the family can be achieved by cutting away at the social institutions that support and reinforce it: such as universal belief in the fantasy of romantic love, discrimination against atypical family living arrangements, all backed by state support for “Teh Family” with tax breaks, pension rules and other pro-marriage discrimination. She also suggests alternative living units – households of say 8 or 10 adults with a number of young people who commit to stay together for say 7 to 10 years in order to support the little ones, but who are free to move on thereafter. She believes that with the erosion of the family and the elimination of the incest taboos and sexual repression that are an inevitable result of family life, something new will eventually arise. The psychosexuality of power will give way to a new kind of love, a truly free kind of love, and the possibility of true happiness.

These are powerful ideas. With her uncompromisingly anti-family stance, Firestone is in many ways the antifeminists’ feminist: she attacks every holy cow including the Great Holy Cow, the family that so many social conservatives see as the Bedrock of Society.

Gosh, I do admire her. And her thoughts will stay with me, and influence my life, for a long time. They have started already.

River God“The goddess Hapi is one of my favourites. Strictly speaking, she is neither god nor goddess, but a strange, bearded, hermaphroditic creature possessed of both a massive penis and an equally cavernous vagina, and bounteous breasts that give milk to all. She is the deification of the Nile, and the goddess of the harvest. The two kingdoms of Egypt and all the peoples in them depend utterly upon her and the periodic flooding of the great river which is her alter ego. She is able to change her gender or, like many of the other gods of this very Egypt, take on the shape of any animal at will. Her favourite guise is that of the hippopotamus. Despite the god’s ambiguous sexuality, my mistress Lostris always considered her to be female, and so do I. The priests of Hapi may differ from us on this view.”

This somewhat blokey epic adventure / romance tells the story of uberslave Taita and of his loved ones: his mistress Lostris who becomes the principal consort of the Pharaoh, and thereafter Regent, ruling on behalf of her infant son; her lover Tanus, greatest general of the Egyptian army; and Crown Prince Memnon, later Pharaoh Tamose, who is Lostris’ son.

Taita is one of those seriously annoying people who is remarkably good at everything, and not ashamed to talk about it. He is a poet and artist, an architect and inventor, a diplomat and politician, a mathematician and astrologer, a military tactician, a doctor, a seer, a teacher, a financier, a biologist, a cartographer, and a beauty. And probably some other stuff that has slipped my mind. He fair gets on your wick.

When Lostris marries the Pharoah she demands that Taita be allowed to go with her as her parting gift from her father, the dark and powerful Lord Intef. This proves to be the best decision of her life, since naturally he manages to make pretty much everything turn out beautifully for her. The story hangs on the invasion and conquest of Egypt by the powerful and warlike Hyksos people, the exile of the Egyptians and their eventual return. It also follows the lives and loves of its primary characters.

I can’t say I got a lot out of this one. Apart from the implausibly multitalented Taita (I kept thinking James Bond), there were a few things that annoyed me. The author’s tendency to repeat the phrase “this very Egypt” ad nauseam was one of them. The age-old device of pretending that this total work of fiction is all a true story translated from some papyrus scrolls found in a well-hidden tomb is also one that I find frankly insulting.

All that said, it was readable and killed a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, so I can’t complain too much…

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy came from the library.

Sunset Song“Now that was in summer, the time of fleas and glegs and golochs in the fields, when stirks would start up from a drowsy cud-chewing to a wild and feckless racing, the glegs biting through hair and hide to the skin below the tail-rump. Echt was alive that year with the thunder of herds, the crackle of breaking gates, the splash of stirks in tarns, and last with the groans of Nell, the old horse of Guthrie’s, caught in a daft swither of the Highland steers and her belly ripped like a rotten swede with the stroke of a great, curved horn. Father saw the happening from high in a park where the hay was cut, and they set the swathes in coles, and he swore out Damm’t to hell! and started to run, fleetly as was his way, down to the groaning shambles that was Nell. And as he ran he picked up a scythe-blade, and as he neared to Nell he unhooked the blade and cried Poor quean! and Nell groaned, groaning blood and sweating, and turning away her neck, and father thrust the scythe at her neck, sawing till she died.”

This is the story of Chris, a woman living the crofter’s life in rural Scotland in the early part of the twentieth century. It is the first part of a trilogy about her life and in it she grows from a crofter’s young daughter into a woman, falling in love, getting married, suffering assorted tragedies, with everything turning out more or less alright in the end.

There isn’t really much of a plot to speak of, but that hardly matters when the language is so spellbinding and evocative (if hardgoing, until you get into the swing of it). It is beautiful prose that recalls and mourns a lost Golden Age.

That said, as a novel, it didn’t really work for me. There were too many bits that didn’t ring true – a man speaking through a woman’s skin but without a woman’s knowledge.

The description of childbirth, for example, is what sticks in my mind and it is just wrong – it speaks of a sharp, clawing pain and uses heated swords and hooks as its metaphor. Wrong. And Mistress Melon – a companion cum housekeeper who stays with Chris after the death of her father leaves her alone and unchaperoned – simply disappears once Chris is married. Where did she go? Why? Then there is the family planning – Chris is keen to avoid the fate of her mother, worn down by numerous pregnancies, and the book is clear that there is family planning going on to space her family, presumably some version of the rhythm method: yet it is also clear that Chris has no knowledge about sex at all (a farmer’s daughter!) prior to her marriage and nobody to advise her on the subject. Doesn’t make sense! Moreover, although Chris is a woman and the protagonist, once she is grown up all her relationships with the other crofters seem to be with the male heads of households, rather than with their wives or daughters. Their wives are without exception presented in a bad, shrewish, gossipy light – yet is it so plausible that there would not be a truly kindly one among them, and that Chris would have no female friends at all?

In all, a nice book, just not very convincing. I shan’t be reading the remainder of this trilogy for all the lilting beauty of its language.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I got mine from the library.