Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

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