My 52 book reading challenge – March

27: Mande leatherworkers and potters : art and heritage in West Africa by Barbara Frank.

OK, so, obscure and if you wanted to read it, you’d need to ask for an interlibrary loan, but a fantastic book if you are into real world folklore. Basically in West African folk magic there’s a strong tradition of blacksmith magic and it has been studied in great detail. There is however a complimentary tradition of magical potteresses which has received less study, because they tend to be the sister and wives of the blacksmiths. This book looks at this tradition. A caution for the squeamish: the bits about attitudes to genital mutilation, although very tastefully written, are still confronting.

(I try not to mention I write books on my work blog, but I know some people from the Ars Magica game community are subscribers to book coasters, so: guys – there’s no Mande  book in the works. Don’t hassle the publishers for a release date, OK?  8)  I may do some magazine articles eventually with it.)

28: A river not yet tamed by Nancy Cato.

I’ve given this book a full length review in another post.

29: Batman vs Robin and 30: Secret lives of great authors

Reviewed in a brief and slightly deranged way in another post.

31: The bone is pointed by Arthur Upfield

Oh, such a complicated book for what’s basically a simple detective mystery. It’s the first in the Bony series I’ve listened to, and I enjoyed it immensely except for a disquiet through the whole thing on the matter of race. Are Bony’s feelings of internalised inferiority (due to having a black mother) meant to represent that author’s opinion? Are they meant to show how some black people felt at the time? Can you really admire a hero (and otherwise he’s far more personable than, say Hercule Poirot) who seems to loathe part of himself, and is driven to solve crimes to show he’s “above”, to use his own words, his aboriginal ancestry?

I think I may need to read more of these just to get a handle on if the self-loathing is a flaw the character overcomes, or if it really is the author giving us his worldview. It seems like an odd reason to follow a series, but otherwise it’s better than many of the cozy mysteries I’ve been reading recently. It makes a great counterpoint to Phyrne Fisher, with her boundless optimism in her own capacities, wealth and luxury, for example.

32: Cocaine blues by Kerry Greenwood

I listened to this to prepare for the ABC TV Series. I notice a lot of other people have reviewed it, so here are some book club discussion questions  instead.

33: The sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

Reviewed at unnecessary length in a previous post.

34: The sinking of the Titanic and great sea disasters

This Librivox recording (from a public domain book) is primarily interesting for the construction of masculinity it contains. It is heavily of the opinion that “Women and children first”, which was apparently an order not usually given before this accident, is an example of Christian charity and European masculinity that should be lauded.

On the racial angle, Chinese people, black people, Italians and so on, in the book, simply don’t seem to understand why a white officer is threatening to shoot them in the face if they try and get on the lifeboats. On a deeper level, all of the rich men are offered places on the first boats. Most decline, but it does seem to be “Women, children and the very rich men first.” There’s a story of a black stoker who is shot because an officer thinks he is trying to sneak up on the radio operator to kill him and take his life preserver. This leads to the interesting and obvious question: why did this black crewman not have a life preserver already?

According to the author, men in disasters have a responsibility to die.  Their method of death is highly circumscribed, as shown by the approval of one suicide, and the disapproval of another. The captain who, carried off the ship by a wave to within speaking distance of a lifeboat,  chosses to return and go down with his vessel. He is a hero. The officer who, knowing that all of the women and children are gone and the lifeboats with them, chooses to end his life with a pistol is damnable. One has died bravely: one is a coward.

There’s a telling little piece where the author says five dogs and one pig were saved, carried as pets by women in their bags. The author says it seems wrong that a pig should live while brave men die, but, if one were reading uncharitably, dogs before men was just fine.

There’s even a concluding poem about how men died, but manhood died not.

The construction of manhood is, of course, wrapped around a construction of womanhood. Women go first because they are, according to the author, weak. It says women and children were offered places before men regardless of class or contribution to society, but that’s clearly not the case. Third class ticket holders and maids died disproportionately, and all of the bellboys were ordered not to enter the lifeboats, on the same pain of being shot as the rest of the crew.

Very little is expected of the women by the author. Women are said to have been “as heroic as the men who stayed behind” for rowing the lifeboats on those occasions when the crewmen became too tired to row (and thereby breached their duty as men). Men have a duty to die, but women seem to have a duty to passively endure. That they should make physical effort to save themselves is seen as remarkable: the author seems to believe they are incapable, for the most part of contributing to their rescue.

So, a complicated and disturbing piece, which shows quite clearly, among other things, the benefits of feminism to both genders.

35: Tales of the cities by various authors, selected by Librivox volunteers

If, as O Henry notes, every city has a simple phrase which its voice repeats over and over, what does the Gold Coast say? When the Commonwealth Games was announced many people said that it would be a coming of age for the city. Since it has not happened yet, that implies the city has not come of age, and is a surly teenager, desperately interested in nightclubs, women in swimsuits, and cadging a ciggie off Brisbane. This is, I’m sure, what it speaks to many people who live elsewhere. It is a city that has not come of age and that desperately does not want to grow up.

Yet, that doesn’t encapsulate the experience of living here outside the tourist district.  I live in one of the oldest parts of the Coast, in a quite suburban way, as most do. For me, the experience is much like living in a small country town: you need to make your own fun. Perhaps the Gold Coast isn’t even a teenager yet, and its cry is inaudible? Perhaps “Make your own fun.” is the message O Henry would find in the Gold Coast?  A lot of people seem to be doing it.

36: Behemoth by Scott Westerfield

The second in the Leviathan series of teen-but-read-them-anyway novels. The series is a bit slow, but I find the mixture of steampunk and biopunk just lovely. There’s only one point in this book where the plot really pulls its punches because it is written for children. When you see the spices, why does no adult say “Hey, we have heaps of kerosene to power our mecha, and kerosene is ridiculously cheap. Put the chili away and let’s just use white spirit!”

The deus-ex-machina was unexpected. Fair, in the Chekov’s gun sense, but deprotagonising for the main characters. Still, I’m looking forward to the sequel, Goliath. I’ll write a fuller review when I finish the third one, if it turns out to be a trilogy.

37: Belinda Jeffrey’s The Country Cookbook

Long review in a previous post.

38: The Petticoat Commando by Johanna Brandt

This Librivox recording is interesting on several levels. Its a biography of two women who, while in British occupied territory during the Boer War, struggle to aid the resistance fighters in the hills. Now, that’s a heroic sort of narrative, but there are problems with such a simple read. The Empire is running concentration camps, so they are basically genocidally evil, but that doesn’t make the narrator saintly. She has very negative attitudes regarding non-white people. So the book has depths which make it interesting: you can’t really choose a side to consistently barrack for, since both are loathsome in turn.

As a minor aside, there’s a claim they invented the use of lemon juice for invisible ink, which is interesting to fans of the espionage genre.

39 – 41: Lucifer: Children and monsters, Lucifer: A dalliance with the Damned, and Lucifer: The Divine comedy by Mike Carey

I’ve decided to read the Lucifer series of graphic novels. At the most abstract they are about the problem of free will in a universe created by a God who has predestined events. They have interesting folkloristic influneces and a sort of flat, ugly art that suits the story well. I’m starting at the second one because we are missing volume 1 from the Library collection, although new copies are on order.

Books turned down this month:

Mr Midshipman Easy: I’ve given it two attempts and not cracked it. So far as I can see the plot does not begin until Chapter 8, and by that stage, it’s gone far past the “You can bore me for an hour, but no more.” test.

The Magicians’ Guild by Tracy Canavan

I really wanted to like this one, but seven chapters in, I’m not hooked. It’s right in my high appeal factor area, because it has a pseudomedieval wizards’ college at its centre, and usually I eat that sort of thing up with a spoon. Somehow, though, I feel like I’m waiting for the author to manouver her pieces into place, before the plot can begin. Part of the problem is that I’m listening to this in audiobook, so it takes more time to tear through a chapter. A pity…I’d hoped to review it for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

I have a lot of graphic novels lined up for next month, so I think I’ll probably reach my target late April.