July 2007


Shirley Valentine - Pauline Collins

Pauline Collins is fantastic in the title role, playing a beaten down housewife who used to be joyful and spontaneous and sparky, full of life and plans – wondering now how she came to be a lonely middle-aged woman going nowhere, talking to the wall as she makes her husband’s dinner. When her friend wins a holiday competition and they both take off for a fortnight in Greece (unimaginably exotic then if not now), she finds herself rediscovering the Shirley Valentine she used to be.

I do like this film. What I like best is the ending, a happy question mark, full of possibilities – because you know that whatever happens next, it will be better than what came before.

It isn’t only Collins who is excellent. Joanna Lumley is bang-on as a grown-up version of Shirley’s childhood rival from school. Alison Steadman is perfect as the strawfeminist friend (and even the inclusion of a strawfeminist doesn’t detract from this film, I promise). Tom Conti is hilarious as the Greek hunk. The cast is all round wonderful, in fact.

Did I mention that I like this film?

The Red Tent, Anita DiamantWhy had no one told me that my body would become a battlefield, a sacrifice, a test? Why did I not know that birth is the pinnacle where women discover the courage to become mothers? But of course, there is no way to tell this or to hear it. Until you are the woman on the bricks, you have no idea how death stands in the corner, ready to play his part. Until you are the woman on the bricks, you do not know the power that rises from other women – even strangers speaking an unknown tongue, invoking the names of unfamiliar goddesses…

I wept and I yelled. I gave up all hope and I prayed. I vomited and my knees buckled. But even though their brows furrowed in response to my pains, none of them appeared worried or anxious. So I fought on, reassured. Then I began to push because there was nothing else I could do.

This is the (fictional) story of the biblical Dinah, only daughter to Jacob. In it she recounts the stories of her four mothers and of her self, stories thick with the names of goddesses, and saturated in the blood of the red tent, the place where the women enter their own world with its own rites.

It is quite simply the most inspiring novel I have read in a very long time.

It is also a reminder of what we women have lost: our heritage. Women’s stories have been lost because they have been suppressed: because the interference by men and patriarchy in women’s lives – in our hearts and minds, as well as our bodies – over history has prevented us from continuing to pass down our stories from generation to generation; and because women were not taught to write; and because those who could write at best failed to understand that women could have a story worth recording. It is deeply sad that this is all we have of women like Dinah- a few scraps that men thought relevant to their own stories, and this, a carefully constructed and deeply authentic book, but ultimately a fiction.

Fiction – but read it anyway, OK?

PS This is a rhetorical question. But why is a book about women written from their perspective described by everyone and even on its own blurb as one that is exclusively for women? When a book about men written from the man’s perspective is ordinarily considered to have universal appeal? Think Moby Dick, think Papillon, think Master and Commander – just for examples – those books are not described as “men’s novels” and nor are their target audiences deliberately confined to men only. Is there not a man somewhere who might find The Red Tent a revelation, an affirmation, a wonder?

Papillon, Henri CharriereI blamed myself for being ungrateful to Indara and for not returning her total devotion as I ought. But there was nothing I could do about it: she clung to me so these days that it got on my nerves – she angered me… I was not pleased with myself [for having stolen off without a word to my Indian princess]. She, her father and all her people had done me nothing but good and I was making a poor return. I didn’t try and find reasons to justify my behaviour. It seemed to me that what I was doing wasn’t at all pretty, and I wasn’t in the least proud of myself. I’d left six hundred dollars just lying there on the table: but money doesn’t pay for the kind of things I’d been given.”

This is a hugely long narrative adventure, telling the story of its author, Charriere*, known as Papillon – an underworld type who was convicted of manslaughter and transported to French Guiana for a life sentence of hard labour in the 1930s, when life meant life. The book tells the events of his life in various prisons and penal colonies, his many escape attempts, and his eventual journey to freedom.

(* I’m not sure to what extent this memoir qualifies as “novel” since it is apparently an authentic account, albeit with some names and dates changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved. However, mine is not to reason why, right?)

Charriere is a great raconteur and tells a mean anecdote. His account of prison life is horrifying. His account of life as an underworld insider is enlightening. His escape attempts are always thrilling, usually impressive, and often blackly humorous.

Ultimately, this really isn’t my sort of book – especially at this stage in my life where I really resent that the only positive treatment of female characters (to the limited extent that there are any in a book about men in prison) is pretty much that they are either virtuous wives or virtuous whores, or a bit of both. They often help and sometimes adore the charismatic Papillon, but rarely make any lasting impression or have any lasting influence on him as three-dimensional human beings (rather than as mere virtuous wife/whore puppets). And it is primarily women who bear the brunt of his practical ingratitude.

So there you have it: a great book, for men.

Here is an Amazon link.
I borrowed my book from the library.

Men at Arms, Terry PratchettThe opposing marchers watched in fascination.
“We should do something!” said Angua, from the guards’ hiding place in the alley.
“Weeell,” said Sergeant Colon, slowly, “it’s always very tricky, ethnic.”
“Can put a foot wrong very easily,” said Nobby. “Very thin-skinned, your basic ethnic.”
“Thin-skinned? They’re trying to
kill one another!”
“It’s cultural,” said Sergeant Colon, miserably. “No sense us tryin’ to force our culture on ’em, is there? That’s speciesist.”

In this, the 15th Discworld novel, the hopelessly inadequate City Watch in Ankh-Morpork is being expanded to better reflect the make-up of the city it polices.

Instead of being a men-only force, the watch is now to include a dwarf, a troll, and even Angua, who is a w-!

Given the massive tensions between the dwarfish and trollish races, there is bound to be trouble, even apart from the fact that people keep getting murdered* and Captain Vimes is on the brink of retirement.

(* A surprisingly rare phenomenon in Ankh-Morpork. Licensed assassinations and suicide – by, for example, looking at someone funny in a troll bar – are common, but your actual murder is, apparently, rare.)

Enjoyable, as most these books are. Just a bit like a blast-from-the-past experience, since I have recently read later books in the series where some of the characters introduced in this novel appear as well-establish members of the watch.

Here is an Amazon link.
My copy from the library.

Master and Commander, Patrick O'BrianThe seamen, sprawling abroad on the foc’s’le and combing out their long hair or plaiting it up again for one another, kindly explained to the landmen that this long swell from the south and east, this strange sticky heat that came both from the sky and the glassy surface of the heaving sea, and this horribly threatening appearance of the sun, meant that there was to be a coming dissolution of all bonds, an apocalyptic upheaval, a right dirty night ahead. The sailor men had plenty of time to depress their hearers… for this was Sunday afternoon, when in the course of nature the foc’s’le was covered with sailors at their ease, their pigtails undone. Some of the more gifted had queues they could tuck into their belts; and now that these ornaments were loosened and combed out, lank when still wet, or bushy when dry and as yet ungreased, they gave their owners a strangely awful and foreboding look, like oracles; which added to the landmen’s uneasiness.

This is the first of a long series of naval novels set in the nineteenth century and featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin. In it, Aubrey receives promotion from the rank of lieutenant to that of master and commander; is given the command of a King’s ship, the sloop Sophie; and gets to gad about on the Med being by turns heroic and self-absorbed. Meanwhile, Maturin finds himself appointed ship’s physician (a much-needed and well-respected position in a ship of war, where it was not so unusual for a crew to have a butcher or carpenter as its surgeon) and learns a lot very fast about life at sea.

This was a decent enough yarn, but the ending was somewhat anticlimactic and (believe it or not) I have read several better books of this genre. The author seemed unable to stop pointing out how much research he had done about ships and things, and stuffing the narrative with detailed facts that added nothing to the story – especially near the beginning where the device of Maturin knowing nothing about seamanship and everyone feeling the need to explain it all to him is done to death.

And, in any case, there’s only so much in the way of sailing up and down doing heroical warlike things that a person can stand when she’s got a tempting pile of womanist literature to hand that she could be reading instead. Ho-hum.

Amazon link.
My copy from library.

The History of Witchcraft, Lois MartinThe Aristotelian worldview of the medieval scholastics convinced them that all forms of sorcery and magic lay in the realm of the Devil and were at his command… anything of a magical nature derived its efficacy from the Devil. According to this view there could be no such thing as ‘white’ or beneficent magic and the scholastics argued that anyone who practised magic of any kind was dealing with the Devil. And the Devil, not known for his spontaneous generosity of spirit, didn’t do anything without wanting something in return. Herein lay the seeds of the pact, as scholastic theologians began to surmise that, in order to carry out any kind of magical act, one would first have to offer the Devil some kind of recompense or reverence, and this amounted to nothing less than heresy and apostasy.

This is not, as the title may suggest, a history of the practice of witchcraft by actual witches. Indeed, the author has some pretty strong doubts about whether there ever was – before Wicca, I mean – any real, organised cult of witchcraft (as opposed to local, probably solitary, practitioners of magic, which she accepts were common).

Instead, Martin traces the history of the ideas that informed the medieval stereotype of the witch: devil worship, the night ride, cannibalism (especially the murder and consumption of babies), obscene and lawless orgies, and so on. She explores the reasons why these ideas grew, how they developed, and how they led to the hysterical persecution and diabolical torture of those accused of witchcraft.

This is too brief, and covers too much ground, to be anything like a comprehensive text. It is more of an overview, an easy-reading introduction. Well worth a dabble.