The next of my reading list books! Such a fascinating and compelling read – one that resparked my interest in vintage and historical cookbooks!
Lawrence Norfolk’s novel I read in one go – I just couldn’t put it down. His newest work may be his most accessible but its descriptions are no less rich and his subject, while a fantastical fairy-tale of 17th century England, deals with complex characters, situations and relationships. John Saturnall’s ‘demon’ – his acute sense of smell is the mechanism for his rise from destitute circumstances. Ultimately John is consumed by the desire to discover the truth of what happened, both to his mother during her time at Buckland Manor and to his ancestors – the creators of the Saturnall feast that John is determined to recreate. Norfolk’s descriptions of ancient dishes are enchanting and never fail to make me hungry! The novel’s political and religious overtones are masterly interwoven in order to not overwhelm the mythological aspects of the story. One of my new favourites!
Continuing with my winter book list! The only non-fiction book I’ve read so far has been Naomi Wolf’s new book entitled Vagina. It was a Christmas present and to be honest I’m still not sure. Popular opinion has tended to pan the book as the work of an ego-maniacal reductionist with a one-size fits all solution for women and their sexual problems. I’m not so sure. While I will admit that most of the accusations are true, or at least the book can be read in this way, I think that it is much easier to pan something that is controversial and unpopular and possibly a bit uncomfortable rather than to look at it for its truth and partial wisdom. Of course book critics are paid to be harsh – but I think that may take away from what books like this may be able to provide to the general public – which is an opportunity to open dialogue. I’m not arguing that this book should be seen as a bible for women’s sexual issues and the prescription of candles and flowers to make sex better is a bit passé for many – however the broader notion that many women desire, or even need, to feel safe, secure and valued in order to relax with their sexual partners should not be a controversial one. Wolf tends to take her points too far – re: inappropriately shaped pasta and its naming – but again the wider point of jokes about rape and crude words women’s sexual organs clearly do take a toll and many women do feel uncomfortable when in the vicinity of such talk. Wolf’s assertion that such comments have long lasting physical consequences should be taken seriously.
Clearly what is missing in this book is an emphasis on variety – and while Wolf does try with passing remarks and throw-off comments she needed to do a better job. While I don’t know if a heterosexual vagina needs a virile man, it seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that vaginas are built differently depending on sexual orientation. Sex did evolve biologically for a purpose and is a two person show, however we should not be ruled by this biological history – surely we do not submit to this notion of purely biological or evolutionary functions for human activity in other areas of our life. Even if this idea proves to be true – that women have different types of orgasms with a partner, specifically during penetration – this should not detract from personal preference or social conditioning. Ultimately many feminists (myself included) will always be skeptical of any assertion that women *need* a man and the subject could have been handled with more tact and less prescription.
Rather than dither over her intentions – a rather uninteresting subject – I prefer to focus on areas of the book that are particularly good. These include the discussion of cultural history of the vagina – especially the section on Victorian thoughts of female masturbation and clitoridectomy. Her discuss of rape as a tool of war and the far-reaching and somewhat unseen consequences of such practices is written with passion and just the right amount of anger. It is perhaps a bit much for her to presume to know how all women who have been assaulted feel or act, but the notion that rape harms more than just the physical or the perception of these women within their communities is one that has value and should be discussed. It is an ambitious book and does have many flaws, primarily in that it goes too far, draws far-reaching conclusions and perhaps is a bit reductive in what women want or need – but I’m not at all convinced that Wolf means for any given reader to take it as a prescription for their own life, nor should it be seen as cure-all for all that ails us. Ultimately if the feminist community is unhappy to have Wolf as an expert then others need to step up. Those with ideas should share them, and ultimately the level of dialogue between women must be set higher. Its not enough to pan someone else’s idea – you’ve got to have one of your own.
The first entry in my winter booklist reviews! My list for the next three months is very ambitious and we’ll see how much I get accomplished. In the meantime, here’s a bit about the first book I read on my list!
Ali Smith’s latest novel – Girl Meets Boy is bound to be controversial by the nature of the author and of the original myth itself. The book is a part of the Canongate Myth Series and takes on the task of modernizing old myths. This lately has been vastly popular the last several years, as can be seen from the variations on Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and other such fairy-tales making appearances in film and television series. Smith takes on the slightly different challenge of remixing (her word) the myth of Iphis found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses a a bit of a further throwback than Snow White! Iphis in Ovid’s work is the story of a girl brought up as a boy by her mother to save her from death as an infant who, as an adult, falls in love with a girl and despairs she will never make her beloved happy during their marriage. Iphis pleads with the gods and is transformed into the form she desires – ultimately a happy ending and an ancient examination of love from a social and biological point of view. For me reading Girl Meets Boy reminds me of my days in university plugging through ancient Greek mythology. However unlike some of the ancient Greek writing I fell asleep to, Smith keeps the story moving and fresh. In fact she is able to keep the integrity of the original story while modernizing it to reflect themes of equality with humour and literary references mixed in for good measure. Particularly well done was the the use of inner-monologue to express modern concerns with gender and sexuality – especially relevant to our family. When Midge to express her discomfort with her sister’s sexual identity and new relationship, Smith aptly demonstrates that even those who think of themselves as progressive can be uncomfortable when its a little too close to home. Unlike the original myth, Smith’s characters do not conform to social restrictions for their relationship and instead challenge convention – a situation that in Ovid’s works would likely have led to an unhappy ending for the lovers. Luckily the sisters reconcile, the love story ends happily, and while the story carries some serious undertones and themes, it also manages a lightness and charm that make it an easy read.