Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman

Cover of Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman. Beacon Press, March 9, 2021.

Journalist Zimmerman’s (Basic Witches) collection of powerful essays examines misogyny through the framework of Greek mythology, pinpointing how such stories were coded to reinforce patriarchal fears. In monsters like Lamia, Chimera, and Scylla, Zimmerman identifies the personification of traits that are threatening to men and male power. Ambition and desire—for food, sex, attention, or respect—are depicted in the voracious, man-devouring appetites of Charybdis or the Harpies’ thievery. Women’s bodies that do not conform to male standards of beauty are represented in the cursed gorgon Medusa. Zimmerman shows how the embodiment of these characteristics in mythic figures has allowed the patriarchy to sustain an equivalency between women’s empowerment and that which is monstrous, dangerous, or unnatural. Worse yet, Zimmerman shows, women have subconsciously internalized these parallels and continue to alter their behavior to conform to standards acceptable to men. VERDICT: While the personal experiences Zimmerman draws on are by no means universal, there is plenty here for any woman to relate to. Her wit and eloquence, as well as her understanding of these myths, make for persuasive and empowering reading that will have women embracing their inner monsters.

Library Journal, March 01, 2021

The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Ann McCutchan

Cover of The Life She Wished to Live by Ann McCutchan

The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling by Ann McCutchan. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., May 11, 2021.

Writer McCutchan’s (Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute) biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling is both an exploration of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s life and inspirations and an insightful look at the ups and downs of the creative process. McCutchan reveals American journalist and writer Rawlings (1896–1953) as an iconoclast who shunned traditional female roles and modes of behavior, to the disappointment of her ambitious and controlling mother. Inheriting her father’s desire for farm life, Rawlings purchased a Florida orange grove in her early thirties, immersing herself in the culture and dialect of her rural neighbors and shaping her fiction around the theme of our uneasy coexistence with nature. Drawing upon Rawlings’s abundant surviving correspondence, McCutchan doesn’t shy away from exposing the temperamental behavior that often strained her subject’s relationships with friends and lovers, or the frequent mood swings—exacerbated by illness and excessive drinking—that complicated her work habits. McCutchan balances this by showing how Rawlings encouraged and inspired fellow writers, recognized and wrestled with her own racial prejudices, and became an advocate for conservation. VERDICT: A comprehensive, well-researched portrait of the life of Rawlings and her creative struggles that will engage a variety of readers.

– Library Journal, February 01, 2021

In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire by Laurence Bergreen – review

Cover of In Search of a Kingdom by Laurence Bergreen

In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire by Laurence Bergreen. HarperCollins, March 16, 2021.

Bergreen (Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius), who followed the tragic course of Ferdinand Magellan’s around-the-world voyage in his bestselling Over the Edge of the World, now tells the story of another circumnavigation, this one undertaken by English pirate Francis Drake. Unlike Magellan, Drake survived his journey, returning to England with a fortune in gold and other valuable goods looted from the ships of England’s arch-nemesis, Spain. Bergreen shows how Drake’s successful piracy proved crucial to the survival of the cash-strapped reign of Elizabeth I, who unofficially endorsed Drake’s raids on Spanish shipping and territories. The exploits of El Draque (The Dragon, as he was known to Spanish sailors) proved pivotal in encouraging England’s command of the seas and imperial ambitions, though personal profit was of more importance to Drake than selfless patriotism. Elizabeth is as much a force in the narrative as Drake, with Bergreen recounting the machinations of her court to give full historical context to Drake’s marauding. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is marred by inconsistencies in chronology and repetitions that detract from an otherwise compelling story. VERDICT: An intriguing-but-flawed exploration of an often-overlooked aspect of Elizabethan history.

Library Journal, January 22, 2021

The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor by Clive Irving – review

Cover of The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor

The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor by Clive Irving. Pegasus Books, Jan. 05, 2021.

English journalist Irving (Scandal ’63: A Study of the Profumo Affair) brings insider experience to this look at the reign of Elizabeth II (b. 1926), exploring the House of Windsor’s relationship to the press through decades of national change and private scandal. A Fleet Street veteran, Irving recounts with firsthand knowledge the evolution of the British press from complicity in guarding the royal family’s secrets to viewing the royals as a commodity to be exploited, a change the monarchy was ill-prepared to handle. The Queen remains an enigma to Irving, displaying none of the vulnerability that the more media-savvy Princess Diana used to win hearts and sympathy: a strategy that Irving contends may have protected her own reign but doomed the monarchy to irrelevance. Though Irving credits the Queen for the House of Windsor’s endurance, she is conspicuously absent for most of the narrative. Instead, Irving reveals a tone-deaf, reactionary monarchy consistently out of step with more dynamic figures including prime ministers such as Winston Churchill, other royals such as Princess Margaret, and the British public itself. VERDICT: A gossipy, yet critical look at the monarchy by a skillful writer who knows his subject well. Fans of The Crown will especially enjoy.

Library Journal, January 01, 2021

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden – review

Cover of Magic: A History: from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov. 10, 2020.

Starred review

Godson’s (Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction) enlightening history explores magical beliefs and practices in cultures around the world from the earliest ages of human history, drawing on evidence from archaeological and textual sources. Defining magic as practices seeking to explore and exploit the connections between humans and the world around them, Godson identifies participation as the hallmark of magical traditions. Cave paintings, grave goods, protective amulets, and graffiti etched into church walls are some of the many examples of magical artifacts Godson uses to illustrate the ways in which different cultures have sought to understand the place of human beings within the cosmos and to harness the power of correspondences to foretell or influence future events. Rather than forming successive trends of increasing rationality, Godson persuasively argues that magic, religion, and science have always existed in tandem, forming a “triple helix” of understanding running through the course of human history up to the present day. In light of the current climate crisis, and inspired by the discoveries of quantum physics, Godson furthermore makes a compelling case for a return to the kind of interconnected perspective central to most magical traditions. VERDICT: A fascinating exploration of magic’s hold on the human imagination.

Library Journal, October 01, 2020

Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England by Gemma Hollman – review

Cover of Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman

Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England by Gemma Hollman. Pegasus Books, July 13, 2021.

In her first book, historian Hollman reveals how allegations of witchcraft were used as political weapons against powerful women in late medieval England. Exploring the cases of queens and high-ranking nobles, Hollman demonstrates the effectiveness of such unprovable accusations in stripping women of their wealth and damaging the fortunes of their families. The life of Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, is particularly illustrative, as Hollman describes how Henry V allowed accusations of the use of malevolent magic to be leveled against his stepmother in order to seize Joan’s property to finance his war for the French crown. In the case of Eleanor of Cobham, similar accusations succeeded in destroying the influence of her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Rank and nobility of blood offered little protection against allegations of witchcraft, and Hollman notes how a foreign birth and widowhood made women yet more vulnerable to such plots. VERDICT: Gaps in the historical record prompt Hollman to make some questionable speculations about the women’s attributes and relationships, but for the most part this is a well-researched and enlightening look at how cultural fear was used to justify acts of misogynistic vengeance and greed.

Library Journal, June 26, 2020

Under Pressure: Living Life and Avoiding Death on a Nuclear Submarine by Richard Humphreys – review

Cover of Under Pressure: Living Life and Avoiding Death on a Nuclear Submarine by Richard Humphreys

Under Pressure: Living Life and Avoiding Death on a Nuclear Submarine by Richard Humphreys. Hanover Square Press, June 02, 2020.

First-time author Humphreys pens a colorfully entertaining account of the five years he spent as a submariner in the Royal Navy during the Cold War. Assigned to one of Britain’s elite Polaris nuclear submarines at age 18, Humphreys found himself enduring three-month patrols on secret missions to locate and track Russian submarines operating in the North Atlantic. With frank honesty and good humor, the author describes the challenges of adjusting to life beneath the sea, chief among them the cramped quarters and lack of fresh air and sunlight. Skillfully summarizing technical issues such as sonar operations and nuclear fission for civilian readers, Humphreys also delves into personal experiences with bullying by other crew members, the physical and emotional toll taken by shifting watches, and the ever-present risk of catastrophic mechanical and systems failures. Humphreys also touches candidly on his struggle to reconcile his day-to-day duties with the horrible purpose for which the Polaris submarines were designed. VERDICT: For the vast majority of people who will never experience life in a submarine, Humphreys’s work delivers an engaging glimpse into what they’re missing out on—and what they’re definitely not.

Library Journal, April 17, 2020.

Aesop’s Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods by Carlo Gébler – review

Cover of Aesop's Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods by Carlo Gebler

Aesop’s Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods by Carlo Gébler, Gavin Weston (illustrator). Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., April 06, 2020.

Intended for adult readers, this new compilation of these ancient fables from writer Gébler (The Wing Orderly’s Tales) and illustrator Weston (Harmattan) is relentlessly dark and biting, with many tales revealing hard truths uncannily apposite to the inequalities of today’s world. Retelling the fables in modern vernacular, Gébler organizes the 190 myths into chapters dealing with particular human foibles and frailties, concentrating on the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless, and the ways in which greed, selfishness, and pride harm both the innocent bystander and the guilty party. Perhaps the most affecting and relatable entries are those dealing with the random cruelty of fate, often represented by the malicious fancies of supernatural agents, and Gébler packs an emotional gut-punch into each spare, succinct paragraph including these points. VERDICT: While there’s little comfort to be found in these tales that ruthlessly dissect human nature, this anthology is not without its charms, especially as found in the whimsical illustrations and witty, honest prose.

Library Journal, March 01, 2020

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc – review

Cover of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc. Coach House Books, March 03, 2020.

Leduc (The Miracles of Ordinary Men), a Canadian writer with cerebral palsy, has penned a remarkable exploration into the ways disability has been portrayed in fairy tales and, consequently, how those portrayals have shaped society’s treatment of the disabled. Referencing her own experiences, as well as those of other disabled writers and activists, Leduc shows how disabled children search for positive representation in fairy tales and other media, only to encounter depictions of disability as something to be pitied, feared, or corrected. In popular tales such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Snow White,” disability is either removed by magic or remains as a punishment for the wicked. Such themes, Leduc argues, have encouraged society to view able-bodiedness as the only acceptable state and conditioned disabled children to view themselves as an aberrant “other.” But Leduc further points to the reciprocal nature of the relationship between fairy tales and society: as the tales have influenced society, so, too, can society change the tales to depict better paradigms and, in turn, make for a more accepting world. VERDICT: Leduc persuasively illustrates the power of stories to affect reality in this painstakingly researched and provocative study that invites us to consider our favorite folktales from another angle.

Library Journal, January 01, 2020

The Martyrdom of Collins Catch the Bear by Gerry Spence – review

Cover of The Martyrdom of Collins Catch the Bear by Gerry Spence

The Martyrdom of Collins Catch the Bear by Gerry Spence. Seven Stories Press, Oct. 6, 2020.

Spence (Court of Lies) relates the circumstances surrounding the 1982 arrest and subsequent trial of Collins Catch the Bear, a young Lakota Sioux accused of killing a white man in the Black Hills. Before discussing his own involvement in Catch the Bear’s defense, Spence describes the bleak childhood that Catch the Bear—born to impoverished, alcoholic parents on the Standing Rock Reservation—spent in foster care and boarding schools, a peripatetic existence that led to struggles with alcohol, drugs, and crime. Spence lays out the scanty evidence against the defendant, the conflicting stories of the eyewitnesses, and the political climate surrounding Catch the Bear’s involvement with Russell Means’s controversial American Indian Movement (AIM). As Spence takes readers through the defense team’s investigations, he shares the thought processes that shaped his conviction of Catch the Bear’s innocence, along with his suspicions of a deeper conspiracy. VERDICT: At times meandering and lacking the amount of detail about the case some readers might wish for, Spence’s book nonetheless thoughtlessly portrays justice both manipulated and denied in this sharp indictment of the treatment of indigenous people.

Library Journal, December 01, 2019