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: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven by Makoto Yukimura

Quick recap and spoilers for the previous volume:  It is the age of Vikings.  Canute, King of Denmark and (by conquest) England, needs cash to fund his occupation army.  Therefore, he has engineered an incident to force the wealthy Ketil family into outlawry and seize their lands and property.  Meanwhile, on the Ketil farm, slaves Thorfinn, Einar and Arnheid face the consequences of Gardar’s rampage–Snake and his men are not happy at all.

Vinland Saga Book Seven

Ketil returns home on Leif’s ship, in great emotional distress because of the king’s treachery.  He learns of Gardar’s attempt to rescue Arnheid (Gardar’s wife and Ketil’s slave) and reacts by beating Arnheid mercilessly, despite her being pregnant with his child.

Then Canute arrives with his thegns (top warriors) and fearsome Jomsviking mercenaries.  Ketil rallies the farmers who owe him money, but that and his small band of “guests”, veteran fighters though they may be are no match for the royal forces.

Thorfinn could just walk away from all of this, none of these people are saints or innocents, and he has no more obligation to them.  But his new commitment to pacifism as a way of life means he has to at least try to resolve the situation peacefully.

This volume of the long-running manga is filled with scenes of violence, often quite gory.  There are extended sequences of beatings that are painful to look at.  Rape does not occur on panel, but is referred to, and one character threatens it in an attempt to force consent.  There are numerous deaths, including important characters.

There are some lighter moments, however.  Canute and Thorfinn’s meeting after so many years leads to at least a temporary peace.  And chapter 100, the last of the volume, is primarily comedic as Thorfinn returns to Iceland at long last only to have no one recognize him.  There’s some humor derived from the fact that there’s another Thorfinn about the same age in the crew, distinguished by being nicknamed “Bug-Eyes.”

The legendary scene of King Canute ordering the waves to stop is in here, as the young ruler makes a point about his power compared to God’s.

The art and writing continue to be excellent, so if you enjoyed previous volumes, you’ll like this one.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six by Makoto Yukimura

To recap if you haven’t read the previous reviews:  It is the age of Vikings.  After the murder of Thorfinn’s father, he dedicated his life to revenge on the man who did it.  That didn’t end as he had hoped, and Thorfinn is now a slave on the estate of wealthy farmer Ketil.  He and fellow slave Einar have been told that they can buy their freedom by clearing and planting enough farmland.  Thorfinn has come to the realization that violence is not a way of life he can in good conscience continue, and wants to try out a new path of peace.

Vinland Saga Book Six

In this volume, Einar and Thorfinn are within sight of their goal of buying their freedom, but a new danger is afoot.  Gardar, a slave at a nearby farm, has escaped, killing his master and that man’s family.  A fearsome warrior, Gardar also just happens to be the husband of Arnheid, Ketil’s sex slave.   They were unaware how close they were, but now their paths cross.  Thorfinn and Einar, who has fallen in love with Arnheid, must make hard decisions when Snake and the other mercenaries hunt Gardar down.

Meanwhile, King Canute returns to Denmark to attend the deathbed of his brother, King Harald.  The young king will become the ruler of both England and the Danelands, but the budget is stretched tight–he needs to squeeze some more wealth out of his Danish subjects to support the occupying army in Britain.  Opportunity arises when Ketil and his sons come to pay homage to the new king.  One of the sons, Olmar, is a vain fool who wants to be a great warrior, but is unable to defeat a dead pig.  It’s easy to trick him into “defending his honor” in a way that can be labeled treason.

The art and writing remain excellent; in the endpapers, Mr. Kitamura mentions that it takes four times as much work to do the backgrounds as it does to draw the people, since he wants the scenery to look as authentic as possible.  He also talks about the long-term plan of the story–an action series set in a violent time where the hero renounces killing; how does that work, especially if the writer doesn’t cheat?

Despite Thorfinn’s newfound ethical stance, there is a lot of violence in this volume, some quite graphic.  There’s also discussion of rape, though none of it happens in this particular part of the story.  This is still a Mature Readers seinen (men’s) manga.

Although there are some light moments, the overall mood of this volume is tragic, as the characters’ actions and goals trap them within their wyrd (fate); their pride or honor or love preventing them from stepping aside from doomed pathways.  Olmar and his brother Thorgil are by no means sympathetic people (and their father Ketil, we are reminded, is a slaveowner and rapist) but it’s still painful to see them fall into the king’s trap.

There’s an interesting parallel between Thorfinn and Canute; both of them are haunted (literally?  who knows?) by the men they hated.  Thorfinn’s mentor and archenemy Askeladd wants Thorfinn to succeed in rising above the path of murder,  while Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard seems amused as his son uses ever more morally dubious methods to steer the kingdom, despite his lofty goals.  Or both men could just be hallucinating.

This series has slowed production, and the next volume isn’t due out until December 2015, so savor this installment.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five by Makoto Yukimura

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first four volumes of this series, so you may want to read the reviews for those if you are new to Vinland Saga.

It has been a few years since the end of Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance on the man who killed his father.  In the aftermath, he has become a thrall (slave) to Ketil, a Danish jarl (wealthy landowner.)  He is joined by a young man named Einar, a Norse-Briton who is not happy about having been enslaved.

Vinland Saga, Book Five

Ketil is, as slaveowners go, a fairly decent fellow.  If Thorfinn and Einar can clear enough farmland and grow crops on it in addition to their other tasks, they may eventually be able to buy their freedom and become small landowners in their own right.  There’s a former slave that’s done just that who is employed by Ketil.  It also helps that our young men take the fancy of Sverkel, Ketil’s elderly father, who gives them a hand in return for them doing extra work in his garden.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that slavery is an okay thing.  Einar and Thorfinn are still property, and if Ketil’s son needs to kill someone to prove his manhood, there’s no law against him destroying his own family’s stock.  And then there’s Arnheid, who is Ketil’s bedservant, and has no chance of ever buying her freedom.

There’s trouble stirring in Ketil’s household, with one son useless at farming but too cowardly to be a warrior, and the other a ruthless raider who begins to think that his war hero father is going soft in the heart.  The mercenary guards may have their own agenda, and the karls (free farmers) have a hate on for the idea that slaves could rise above that station.

Back in England, King Canute is consolidating his rule,  He does it with as little battle as possible, much to the disgust of Thorkell the Tall, now one of his generals.

Believe it or not, it is only in this fifth volume that we are starting the main plot of the series.  While many events swirl about him, the main arc here is Thorfinn finally shaking out of the apathy that he’s been in since the death of Askeladd.  “Being empty means that anything can fit inside you.”  But what is to be his future course, without vengeance to guide Thorfinn’s steps?

This volume continues to be fascinating, even as the main focus switches from battle to farming.  There’s still plenty of violence, though.  And some nudity in a sexual context, but no on-panel sex.   (Ketil’s relationship with Arnheid isn’t exactly consensual on her part, although he has real affection for her.)  Einar’s approach to religion (pray to any and all gods in the hope that one will deliver) might offend some readers.

There are hints of tragedy on the horizon, but we may have to wait a while to see what they are as I am told production on these hefty volumes has been delayed.  Still an excellent buy if you are interested in this sort of thing.

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