Monday, August 27, 2012

{review} the technology of orgasm

When did God make men?
When she realised that vibrators couldn't dance.

Maines' book is a really well adapted women's studies/social sciences dissertation. It is amusing and grotesque in almost equal measure. Maines looks at how the vibrator has been used, abused and misused as a 'scientific' instrument for managing women's illnesses by mechanical means, particularly in the nineteenth century. Some of these mechanisms are quite eye-watering: the steam-powered vibrator, is a case in point. Did you know that the vibrator was electrified for the home market nine years before the vacuum cleaner?!
Rests, strengthens, renews, repairs. Every vital organ is crammed full of vitality. The clogging waste is swept away by the coursing blood which the marvellous force sets leaping through every vein and artery with the virile strength of perfect health. You sleep as restfully as you used to. You awaken, refreshed mentally - physically - strong in mind and body and glad to be alive. [Advertisement for 'White Cross Electric Vibrator' in The American Magazine, January 1913]
Maines asks some really good questions: about the development of the 'disease paradigm' of hysteria; about women's diseases as cash cows for the unscrupulous; about the medicalization of normal conditions for reasons of belief and profit ("the patients neither recovered nor died of their condition but continued to require regular treatments"); about why there are so many hysterics in the nineteenth century; about the long-held belief that vaginal intercourse is required for orgasm (and the concomitant subsumption of the clitoris within "androcentric definitions of sexuality and the construction of ideal female sexuality to fit them"). And how can the same device cure nymphomania and frigidity?

Rating: this is a really enjoyable read, with some nice bits of gender and social theory made accessible to the general reader. There is no bibliography (which was sad), but the notes are very rich and worth reading in full.

If you liked this... I have this book on my wishlist: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, edited by Andrew Mangham & Greta Depledge (2011).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

{not really a review} how nell scored

Bessie Marchant How Nell Scored (n.d. [early 1950s]) 

Less a review and more of a 'I bet you couldn't get away with naming a children's book this nowadays'.


I bought How Nell Scored in Carnforth in the U.K., after touring the railway station where the classic weepy Brief Encounter was partly filmed. If I wasn't totally banned from buying anything that wouldn't fit into my one small suitcase, I would have come away with a lot more from this very nice bookshop. But how could I resist How Nell Scored? It truly deserves a place on anyone's list of Worst Book Titles. 

How Nell Scored is a pretty awful book for young people. Or maybe a book for young people that is pretty awful? The writing style leaves much to be desired and the plot is flimsy. The setting is interesting in a ye olde colonies sense - New Zealand. 

Nell lives on a farm (I note that she is not going to be educated at a decent school like her brother). She manages to rescue a couple of dubious types from a shipwreck. One of them is less dodgy and has a fortune in pearls concealed in his undies (I am being less delicate about this than the book). Nell is entrusted with the pearls (which she also stores in her undies, perhaps more aptly) since - COINCIDENCE! - their owner was actually on his way to find her oldest brother who had foolishly lent him money. Without the money being repaid, Nell's brother will lose his reputation. Etc. 

Nell, whose sense of geographic direction is even worse than mine, sets off on a do-or-die mission to get the pearls to the bank before the other dubious character catches her. She lies in a lot of hay and spends a lot of time up trees. Bulls wish to gore her. She walks in circles and, unsurprisingly, is often hungry. Everywhere she goes, people have accidents. In a better writer, she'd be Carrie. Eventually everything turns out OK. This is how Nell scored. 

Rating: Tosh. Love the title though.

There's an interesting assessment of Bessie Marchant's works here. She was crazily prolific.

Monday, August 20, 2012

{review} caroline minuscule

Andrew Taylor Caroline Minuscule (1982)

    
Dougal wriggled uncomfortably in the passenger seat. He was wearing a new tweed suit, chosen by Amanda, and had had his hair cut. Amanda had insisted that they look respectable. Dougal found that respectability made him itch.
Loved this! I added this to my TBR after reading Jenny's thoughts on it at shelf love. I was not disappointed and have already got the second one in the series lined up to go. 

William Dougal is an impoverished post-graduate student in London studying, in a very desultory fashion, 'The influence of the Carolingian court on the transmission of pagan Latin literary texts in the early Middle Ages' ("so many people asked this question, and most of them changed the subject when they heard the answer").

He discovers his palaeography supervisor's garrotted corpse and, with only a photograph of a Medieval manuscript to go on, gets hopelessly entangled in a mysterious hunt for a hidden fortune. For William, we find, has a bit of a taste for puzzles, the nice things that money can buy, and… murder. The development of William's amoral side is so well done ("Why was killing so easy?"), but I'd better not give away any more. 

The other characters are nicely drawn: William's girlfriend Amanda is a wonderful piece of work, as is William's hapless fellow graduate Philip Primrose:
The ancient universities drew [Primrose] like a moth to a pair of candles; he was already singed for life. The only remaining question was which one would have the privilege of roasting him for posterity.
If you liked this... Quirky, witty and wonderful. I was reminded a little of another even more amoral hero (William is only a beginner here), Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure {REVIEW}.

 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

{review} wildfire at midnight

Argh! My internet has been playing up at home. I've set up some posts to go out automatically, but my commenting will likely be sporadic. Frustrating...

Mary Stewart Wildfire at Midnight (1956)
So we faced each other, the murderer and I, marooned together… alone together, above the silent world, on the mountain where already he had sent three people to their deaths.
He was smiling still… He liked me, and he was going to kill me. He was sorry, but he was going to kill me.

Another satisfying Mary Stewart book, with plenty of red herrings, a spot of old and new romance, lovely scenery (Skye), some nasty murders, and a smart, beautifully dressed heroine (Titian hair, exotic name) who isn't afraid to do that INCREDIBLY ANNOYING THING WHERE YOU WANDER OFF BY YOURSELF EVEN THOUGH THERE'S A MANIAC ON THE LOOSE

Oh, sorry, spoiler...

Rating: Sometimes well-done predictability is what one wants in a book.

If you liked this... I liked this one much more than Nine Coaches Waiting and Touch Not the Cat and nearly as much as The Moonspinners or My Brother Michael. I've reviewed some of them here. Then again, I'm currently reading The Ivy Tree and wondering if that is going to be my absolute favourite.

Monday, August 6, 2012

{review} blessed days of anaesthesia


 

I have had the pleasure of reading a couple of really astonishingly good non-fiction books so far this year. Stephanie Snow's popular history of anaesthetics is one of the best.

Life (and death) really sucked before anaesthetics, and the only thing that is really astonishing is how reluctantly it was embraced. Looking back, can we even imagine a time when it was thought that "pain was necessary and functional in surgery"?! If you have a strong stomach, try reading Fanny Burney's account of her mastectomy without pain relief: "…when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast - cutting through veins - arteries - flesh - nerves - I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision - & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony." (more here)
Anaesthesia challenged Victorian understandings of pain at the most fundamental level. What was its purpose? How could medical control of suffering be reconciled with the Christian view that human pain was God's will? Doctors, clergymen, and writers debated the subject passionately. Because inhaling ether and chloroform could be fatal, it struck deep into one of medicine's central questions: what were the risks versus benefits of medical intervention?
Snow has a great grasp of the big picture - how anaesthetic reforms filtered slowly downwards to change society as a whole:
Beyond medicine, anaesthesia became a touchstone for humanitarianism, fuelling public distaste of pain and concern about the morality of inflicting suffering. It is no coincidence that from the 1860s onwards public executions became private events, legislation was introduced to reduce cruelty to animals in scientific experiments, and ideas of pain in Christian doctrine were reworked.
Snow works her way through the slow development of various types of more or less (usually more) dangerous anaesthetics - from opium to laughing gas, ether, chloroform and then onto the modern drugs we take so much for granted. The tendency of innovators in the field to experiment on themselves and their friends is remarkably consistent throughout history:
Liston was convinced of ether's potential: it had 'the most perfect and satisfactory results' and was 'a fine thing for operating surgeons', he wrote… Then he hosted a celebratory dinner party at which he demonstrated the effects of ether on one of the guests.
The big breakthrough in anaesthetic PR was Dr John Snow's management of Queen Victoria's labour with chloroform in 1853, although this in itself should tip the reader off to the social inequalities that still continue in medical treatment. {Incidentally, John Snow is my medical hero for his work on cholera - REVIEW}
Even after announcements of the Queen's use of chloroform and the publication of Snow's article, Dr Sheppard, a physician living in the provinces, felt strongly enough to write to the Association Medical Journal saying he would not change his view of chloroform. 'No female for whom I have any regard shall ever, with my consent, inhale chloroform,' he vowed, 'I look upon its exhibition as a pandering to the weakness of humanity, especially the weaker sex.'
Anaesthetics, along with a better understanding of antisepsis and the development of endotracheal intubation, revolutionized surgery. Snow has written a really readable and sensible account of the history of anaesthetics and also the place of anaesthetics in the modern world.  

Rating: excellent. 

If you liked this… definitely Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks (2006), on John Snow, cholera and the Broad Street pump

 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

{review} lucia on holiday

Guy Fraser-Sampson Lucia on Holiday (2012)

 

It is a brave writer indeed who would take up the challenge of adding to E. F. Benson's canonical 'Mapp & Lucia' series. Fraser-Sampson is up to the task - tonally he carries it off exceptionally well, and the element of over-the-top mayhem is never far from the scene. It is almost as cruel as the originals. As pastiche it is excellent. Fraser-Sampson's Georgie is a particular delight, but then Georgie has always been my favourite ("He crossed his legs and shot out his cuffs perfectly at the same time, and was disappointed that nobody appeared to notice"). 

Fraser-Sampson takes Lucia at co. to an Italian lake resort on the eve of the 1929 financial collapse. There is some nice use of near-contemporary events - the thoroughly irritating Gabriele d’Annunzio is beautifully done:
Amelia had no time for any of this and was prone to interject ‘Pah!’ or ‘Balderdash!’ into other people’s statements, and she seemed to have quite decided views on Italian politics which, while Lucia knew nothing of such matters, were clearly at variance with d’Annunzio’s. She was pro-Mussolini because he had made the trains run on time. D’Annunzio was anti-Mussolini because Mussolini had tried to kill him by throwing him out of a window. When this fact had been made clear, the party gathered around the dinner table in the saloon had fallen silent, clearly weighing the pros and cons of each position, and most siding mentally with Mussolini on the grounds of justifiable homicide.
There are some wonderful scenes involving hashish and Georgie's quite unwarranted reputation as a Lothario to either sex:
Francesco brought an ashtray over to the balcony table, and leant close to place it beside him, so close that Georgie could clearly smell his perfume. He wondered if it might be one of those new French colognes, and what it might be like to wear a daring cologne himself rather than just boring old toilet water.
‘I did enjoy your recital with Miss Bracely, sir,’ his valet murmured respectfully. ‘I had no idea you were such a talented pianist in addition to your painting skills.’
‘Thank you,’ Georgie replied awkwardly into Francesco’s shirt front. He found his heart was suddenly beating more quickly, doubtless as a result of his agitation.
‘Tell me, sir,’ Francesco enquired softly. ‘You are clearly such a sensitive gentleman. Do you possess any other particular ... artistic tastes?’
This at least was an easy question to answer. ‘Why, yes,’ Georgie said brightly. ‘How clever of you to guess. Actually, do you know, I’m very fond of needlepoint.’
Francesco moved away and said, ‘Indeed, sir’ as he gently closed the French window.
Rating: Decent entertainment. I love the originals and am deeply suspicious of sequels, but Lucia fans are in quite safe hands here.

 

{READ IN 2017}

  • MARCH
  • 23.
  • 22.
  • 21.
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • DECEMBER
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • NOVEMBER
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • OCTOBER
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • AUGUST
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • APRIL
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • MARCH
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]