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Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights
Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights
by Nadine Strossen
Edition: Paperback
Price: 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Authoritatively documented and persuasively argued, 1 Nov 2012
About 30 years ago, a small faction of feminists changed the debate around pornography. Prior to their intervention the picture was simple: in one corner we had the liberals who had long sought more personal freedom in the realm of sexuality, and less governmental control over sexual representation - books, videos, magazines, art forms. In the opposite corner stood the conservatives, staunch defenders of controls over sexual conduct and expression.

Into this polarised picture stepped a segment of the feminist movement often dubbed "MacDworkinites" after their leaders: University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin. They argued that pornography should be suppressed not for traditional "moral" reasons but because it leads to discrimination and violence against women. They drafted an ordinance, or model law, which provided the basis for anti-pornography laws in a number of American states. They formed alliances with conservatives, many of whom were opposed to women's rights, and under a joint anti-pornography banner attacked a wide range of sexually oriented expression.

So successful has the MacDworkinite campaign been, that many people believe the suppression of pornography is a high priority for all feminists, or even for all women. But from the start their ideas and initiatives were countered by anti-censorship feminists.

This book adds an impressive voice to the anti-censorship argument. Nadine Strossen is a professor at New York Law School, editor of the Harvard Law Review and president of the American Civil Liberties Union. A feminist and passionate defender of free speech, her book sets out not just to present the well-worn argument that censorship is always injurious to freedom, but to counter the feminist rational for suppressing pornography with a feminist rational for defending it.

In summary, Strossen argues that any scheme for censoring pornography would undermine women's rights and interest in many ways: "It would be enforced in a way that discriminates against the least popular groups in our society, including feminists and lesbians: it would perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about women, including that sex is bad for us: it would perpetuate the disempowering notion that women are essentially victims; it would distract us from constructive approaches to countering discrimination and violence against women; it would suppress many works that are valuable to women and feminists; it would arm women's efforts to develop their own sexuality."

In contrast to these, and other, costs to feminist goals, the advocates of censorship can cite only on benefit - that it would reduce violence and discrimination against women - a benefit that is far from proven as repeated research had failed to find a casual link between pornography and sex crimes.

To support her case, Strossen has amassed a vast body of evidence. Perhaps most compelling comes form Canada, where a Supreme Court decision in 1992 (Butler V. The Queen) introduced MacDwokinite legislation.

The Canadian version is less sweeping than the original ordinance proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin, but numerous commentators have demonstrated how it has been used, in Strossen's words, as "a potent weapon to suppress free speech for all, as well as the equality rights of various disempowered groups, including the very women whose rights it was supposed to enhance." Supremely ironic is that the Butler legislation has been used to confiscate two books written by Andrea Dworkin herself.

It's easy to see why the anti-pornography movement so readily gained support. It tapped into women's concern about sexual violence and seemed to offer a quick-fix solution or at least something concrete that could be done. It also tapped into the feelings of violation and disgust which pornography engenders in some women. Some, but not all.

And therein lies the difficulty - who decides which representations are "degrading" to women and what are merely a turn-on? Pornography is a vague term, with no legal definition or significance and is so amorphous that it can be - and is - used to encompass any sexual expression which a dominant group find objectionable.

When it comes to sex, and sexual representation, one person's revolting obscenity is another's treasured delight. That Western society find this hard to handle can be seen in the way we treat those dubbed sexually "deviant". Strossen's book demonstrates how the anti-porn movement feeds into this deep-rooted distrust of sex.

The book arises from the twists and turns the US justice system has taken around the issue and at times is US-centric but the questions it raises are relevant to all. If you'd like to move beyond polarised sloganeering around the contentious topic of pornography, this authoritatively documented and persuasively argued book provides an excellent place to begin.


Your Blue-Eyed Boy
Your Blue-Eyed Boy
by Helen Dunmore
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Winner From One of My Favourite Novelists, 1 Nov 2012
This review is from: Your Blue-Eyed Boy (Paperback)
To see Helen Dunmore's publishers bill her latest novel as a "modern thriller" came as a surprise. Dunmore's previous fictional outings were psychological studies, characterised by a lush poetic style and a probing insight at odds with the confines of the thriller genre.

It turns out that Your Blue Eyed Boy is not a new departure but a development, brimming with the sensuality and perception that Dunmore fans have come to expect.

True, it opens with the promise of blackmail. Simone is a district judge whose less than judicious past has, in thriller parlance, returned to haunt her. Twenty years ago she enjoyed a crazy summer in the States spaced out on dope, drink and devotion to a Vietnam veteran called Michael. Michael could make Simone do anything, including play threesome nude games with him and his friend Calvin, some of which were caught on camera.

Now incriminating photographs arrive in the post. Phone calls are made to her home. Eventually, Michael turns up on her doorstep. All of this takes place in the remote marsh landscape that separates Simone's house from the "wrinkled" sea. The area is bleak and desolate, site of brutal Viking invasions. The threat of impending violence looms.

So yes, this book is a thriller of sorts, but not in any conventional sense. Long before it becomes clear that the blackmail it explores is not the money-for-silence cliche, we have been seduced by beautiful language and pertinent details of debt, divorce and and domesticity. Simone has been forced to become the family breadwinner while her husband resentfully stays home with the kids. In court she must "make sense of things that really don't make sense at all"; at home she is also required to keep control, set limits, organise chaos.

Dunmore is a poet who uses vivid, telling imagery throughout her novels. Here, mist "congeals to greasy wool"; anemones "open wide, like paper hearts, yawning their colour"; air turns "sticky as a nightmare". Such delights rise from every page.

She is also virtuoso in her use of the present tense, through her preoccupation is always the past. Simone is Michael's past, the "past into which he's pouring everything, hoping that it'll stand up and walk". But he is hers and that is what she must learn. "I've lost a lot of memory," she says. "Sometimes you have to, when there's no way of organising the past into a pretty shape, or even a shape you can live with." This novel unpicks the pretty shape.

The title comes from a line of an EE Cummings poem quoted by Michael: "and what I want to know is/how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mister Death". Mister Death stalks this novel - natural deaths, accidents, Viking invasions, genocide of Native Americas, the US/Vietnam debacle. These deaths, along with the case histories on which Simone must pass judgement and her own domestic situation, underpin the blackmail story: death and life in all its messiness.

The details are worked in so skillfully, however, that you only fully grasp the themes in the final chapter. That is when the strength of this book takes hold, crawling under your skin.

Your Blue-Eyed Boy is Helen Dunmore's most complex and satisfying novel so far. If you have not yet discovered the delights of her work, get thee hence to the bookshop.


The Last Thing He Wanted
The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clever and Cold Exploration of USA's Heart of Darkness, 1 Nov 2012
Joan Didion is that rare thing: an American woman of letters whose pronouncements on that country's way of life are considered to bear great weight. Journalist, essayist, novelist and columnist, her intelligent and perceptive observations have probed her nation's psyche for three decades.

In this, her 10th book and fifth novel, she turns a fictional probe on the machinations of American politics in the Orwellian significant year of 1984. The story takes in the workings of US central administration and international diplomacy, as well as the American media and the shady operators who work on the fringes of State corruption.

Elena McMahon is a journalist reporting on the presidential election campaign when, to oblige her father, Dick, who "does deals", she goes to Central America in his stead. There she find herself adrift, a pawn in a game with rules she can only begin to grasp, at the heart of an arms trafficking operation and a political conspiracy around Treat Morrison, American Ambassador-At-Large.

Elena's story is related by an unnamed, "not quite omniscient author... who wanted the story to materialise for you [reader] as it did for me [narrator]". The novel employs such tricks throughout, calling attention to an awareness of its own methods and questioning the conventions of all modern narrative forms - fiction, journalism, thriller writing, reportage, even film scripts. "What we want here is a montage, music over," begins one chapter. "Angle on Elena. Alone on the dock... taking of her scarf and shaking out her hair."

Didion is a superb stylist with a number of signature techniques, the most characteristic being the way she repeats key phrases with minute but important variations. With each repetition a seemingly innocuous phrase - "Christ, what business are they all in?" or "My understanding is that Dick McMahon will not be a problem" - becomes ever more significant. Beginning with Elena's meeting with Treat Morrison, the narrative moves forward and back in time, layering phrases and events on top of each other with an incancatory rhythm. The effect is to engender in the reader first suspicion, then dread, and finally understanding.

The climax of the novel - the last outcome, Treat Morrison tells us, that he would have wanted - is not unexpected, it has in fact been flagged for us on page 15. But the reasons that it happens are presented through a finely woven web of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Through dark details, quiet understatement and subtle ironies Elena's entrapment within this complex web is revealed.

Nobody could fault Didion's technical skill. But this reader was left with a "so-what" feeling on finishing this book. Yes, American politics is rotten. Yes, what happened to Elena is terrible. But we are no more moved by her fate than we would be by an in-depth newspaper report.

In her journalism and essays, Didion's techniques are illuminating, her intelligence flashing light on the murkier corners of American life. But fiction can deal only secondarily with the national character; its first duty is to its own characters, and in the best fiction characters are more than just vehicles for ideas, which is essentially what Elena, Treat and the rest turn out to be. Didion's technical brilliance may disguise this but ultimately does not compensate for it. Here, rather than illuminating, it obscures.

This novel is a cold and clever exploration of the USA's heart of darkness but those who expect novels to also reveal something of the human heart will be disappointed.


The Bend for Home
The Bend for Home
by Dermot Healy
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of Lies and Truth and Everything In Between, 1 Nov 2012
This review is from: The Bend for Home (Paperback)
The Bend For Home - A Memoir by Dermot Healy

Memoirs fall into two types - those which delineate extraordinary lives or those which are so well written that the ordinary is transformed. The Bend For Home is of the second category. With a volume of poetry and a few novels to his credit, notably A Goat's Song, Dermot Healy has decided to turn his clear-sighted gaze upon himself.

Of course, it is the self which is the source of all writing, but autobiography - though it may draw from the same well as fiction - is different. It demands bravery. As Healy says, fiction can be a "receptacle for those truths we would rather not allow into our tales of the self."

One of the central themes of this autobiography is how we remember; how not just fiction, but all art, relies on artifice. As illustration he quotes the song Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff, by Percy French, the road engineer. One of the lines goes: "Just turn to the left at the bridge of Finea." But, Healy points out, you cannot turn left at the bridge of Finea. "Even road engineers," he concludes, "are capable of giving wrong directions in order to get a couplet true... Language, to be memorable, dispenses with accuracy."

So how accurate can a memoir be? In this work, Healy strives for the truth about his life and what he perceives as its meaning. At one point he writes of how "nostalgia steals material from the same source as fiction and then leaves the reality wanting." The reality is never wanting in The Bend For Home, and through his story of bereavement, rebellion, drink, drugs, love, decay and death, nostalgia - and its sickly cousin, sentimentality - are scrupulously avoided.

But is that enough? What is truth anyway, and how is it revealed? Healy recounts one cringe-inducing memory of his to reveal the interconnectedness of truth and lies in our lives, especially remembered lives. He returns from London to Cavan for a wedding and lies to the editor of the Anglo-Celt, telling him that a play of his is to be broadcast by ITV. Back in Piccadilly, having forgotten all about the play he's never written, a Cavan friend shows him the front page of the Anglo-Celt, which carries his picture under the headline: "Cavan Author Finds Fame."

His friends show it to everybody they know and as they set him questions, he is drawn further in. "The more of the story I invented, the more real it became." Eventually, he extricates himself with another untruth about production difficulties. Had he not lied about being a writer, however, he believes he may never have become one: "The truth is the lie you once told returning to haunt you."

It is typical of Healy's writing that, apart from one reference to how he would "wake out of a dream terror-stricken by my duplicity," he does not tell us how he felt throughout this time. As for his friends we are told only that "the date for the broadcast came and went [and] no one mentioned it." We are left to imagine the whisperings, the pity of those who believed him, the contempt of the sceptical.

In this leaving of gaps for the imagination to fill, as in his lyrical descriptions of Leitrim landscape and life, he resembles that other novelist of this part of the world, John McGahern. And, as with McGahern, it is sometimes difficult to see how Healy gets his effects. Often all he does is relate bald events, but the impact on the reader goes far beyond this, in the end into an emotional struggle with the meaning of life and death. Yes, the biggest of big themes are explored in this book, and explored with lyricism, wit, passion and tenderness.

The Bend For Home is a stunning achievement. It takes Dermot Healy's ordinary Irish life, and gives it shape, bends it if you like, into somethings that takes home the truth.


The Witch of Exmoor
The Witch of Exmoor
by Margaret Drabble
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Middle-aged, Middle-class English Novel of Ideas, 1 Nov 2012
This review is from: The Witch of Exmoor (Paperback)
`Let them have everything that is pleasant. The windows are open on to the terrace and the lawn, and drooping bunches of wistaria deepen from a washed mauve pink to purple. The roses are in bloom.' With an opening paragraph like this, where else could we be but England?

But we are reading Margaret Drabble, so ye olde English scent of roses soon fades. The people of this novel inhabit the same country that the author outlined in her acclaimed 1980s trilogy: "Not a bad country... just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons".

So though Drabble allows the Palmers - the middle-aged, rational, privileged and selfish family at the centre of this book - to begin with "everything that is pleasant", by the novel's end "the pond" silt up, the lawn is not mown, bindweed embraces the sundial and ground elder ramps around the roots of the wistaria".

The destruction of the Palmers - Daniel and his sisters Rosemary and Gogo - is rooted in their obsession with their mother, Frieda, the eponymous Witch. Frieda Haxby Palmer, writer and capricious free spirit, had, in the opinion of her family, gone mad.

The basis for their concern is that she has moved house: bought a crumbling mansion on the edge of the Exmoor coast, where she intends to write her memoirs and change her will. But Frieda has not been the best of mothers and her children's filial concern is more than a little self-interested.

Thus we have a classic 19th century novel plot of family inheritance given a 20th century outing. But Drabble is no Dickens, and prefers the cerebral to the sentimental. Her acute observations about human psychology and family relationships are a camera through which she captures the swarming throng of contemporary British life and culture.

The Palmers represent Britain's free-market, greedy and selfish present; Benjamin D'Anger - Gogo's son - its multicultural future. And Frieda - daughter of the Fens and the Vikings, who elevated herself by "a genetic freak of talent, intelligence or mother-wit" its past. And the past is a shifting, contradictory, complex mystery: "there were so many versions of the story, and all of them were false".

Ideas are at the heart of this book and a mocking, ironic tone deliberately distances the characters so that, while its comedy hits a bleak, black funnybone, its tragedies leave the reader as unmoved as a news report or a video nasty. Which is, of course, precisely the point.

The book ends on an upbeat note, with the younger generation, represented by Emily (Daniel's daughter) and Benjamin (Gogo's son) embracing life: "on they go and onwards, to the next point and the next. They are young, and on they go."

However, as Emily calls for Benjamin to jump the waves of an incoming tide, an earlier line about Emily and her ill-fated brother, Simon, reverberates in the reader's mind: "only ankle-deep in their lives as yet. Perhaps not even that. But the mud pulls and sucks".

The achievement of this novel is its imaginative hold on the "mud" that is contemporary life.


Vamps and Tramps: New Essays
Vamps and Tramps: New Essays
by Camille Paglia
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Ideas of A Conservative Maverick, 30 Oct 2012
I WANT to put the bomp back into the bomp-de-bomp', roars a new book of essays on feminism, sex, popular culture, education and Madonna. Yes, you got it, it's Camille Paglia time again.

The main thesis of Paglia's latest rag-bag of ideas is that the missing piece in the feminist jigsaw is woman as vamp or tramp. The prostitute, the stripper, the high-glamour star, the seductress; these are "seasoned symbols of tough cookie feminism, my answer to the smug self-satisfaction and crass materialism of yuppie feminism."

She is as scathing as ever about US feminists like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworking, "the Mad Hatter and her dumpy dormouse," or Naomi Wolf "Little Miss...yuppie...twit."

Paglia has been much criticised for her vitriolic comments, getting personal where others thought she should have kept it political.. As far as she is concerned, they're missing the point. She aims to "espouse offensiveness for its own sake, as a tool of attack against received opinion and unexamined assumptions." And of course gratuitous offensiveness is a good way to keep all that lovely attention coming.

Vamps and Tramps is many things but more than anything it is Camille's gaze into the mirror of her many media moments - out of 44 items in the book only five were written specially for it; the rest is previously published articles, reviews and transcripts of TV and film projects, not to mention quotes about Paglia, cartoons of Paglia, reprinted interviews with Paglia - everything that's been thought about Paglia on air or print since her last book promotion.

In her preface, she compares herself to American radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, to businessman-turned-politician Ross Perot, to President Bill Clinton. "We have widely different political views," she says, "but all four of us, with our raging egomania and volatile comic personae tending toward the loopy, helped restore free speech to America." Is this woman for real?

The answer, of course, is no. `Persona' is Camille's favourite word and it is in the invention and promotion of the Paglia persona that she has been most successful. When she met the media it was love at first sight and the infatuation looks like settling into a longterm affair. They love her because, as one journalist put it, "she gives good quote;" she loves them because they spread her ideas around, enabling her to crow: "my terminology and frame of analysis have passed into general usage." She stays sexy in media terms by vamping it up - "improvising, ornamenting, pumping up the excitement" - and adopting a variety of different poses.

So much for the medium, what about he message? There's much to disagree with in Paglia's work, not least her biological determinism. Scholarship is only scratching the surface of the nature versus nurture debate but Paglia breezily dismisses thousands of years of social conditioning and declares that the reason women can't make art is because they have wombs and oestrogen instead of penises and testosterone. She collapses the cultural into the social. "The woman `on the stroll' (streetwalking) is a prowler and predator, self-directed and no one's victim." While this might be true of the whore as a cultural construct - that is, construct of the male artistic sensibility - it hardly describes the real experience of the majority of prostitutes.

Similarly, when she writes of striptease as "the ritual unveiling of a body that will always remain mysterious because of the inner darkness of the womb," and speaks of the admiration and awe of men beholding a nude dancer, she is telling only half the story, overlooking the low social status of sex-workers - and the more patriarchal the society, the lower their status goes.

Contrary to Paglia's thesis, woman as sex symbol is not missing from our culture; she is everywhere. If feminism has stayed aloof it is because feminism is about arming women with more weapons that the double-edged sword of sexual allure.

But even if you don't agree with Paglia you do enjoy the romp through western culture with her provocative critical intelligence. She writes about art and popular culture with passion and knowledge. She crams more no-holds barred ideas into a chapter than many of her critics do into a lifetime and presents them with oodles more wit and style.

Read her and rage.


Iris Murdoch: A Life: The Authorized Biography
Iris Murdoch: A Life: The Authorized Biography
by Peter J. Conradi
Edition: Paperback
Price: 18.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Drowns its subject in detail, 30 Oct 2012
A few years before Iris Murdoch developed the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted her latter years, she was asked if it was true that someone was writing her biography. "Yes", she said, greatly surprised. "I don't read biographies, but apparently people buy them. But me? What is there to say about me?"

This was not just the humility that Peter Conradi, the biographer in question, reveals as one of Iris Murdoch's outstanding characteristics. It is a valid question. Literary biographers argue that an author's life is the very source of their writing, but most writers feel that connections between art and life are slippery, not easily discernible even to themselves.

Are the limitations of biography - the unreliability of source material like letters and diaries, the distortion inherent in squeezing a haphazard and multi-faceted life into a coherent narrative - justified by the end result? Or are the 3000 or so biographies published each year just Hello! for people who prefer words to pictures, satisfying only what Martin Amis once dubbed "eternal human vulgarity", our insatiable curiosity about the gifted or famous?

Never did such questions seem so pressing as when reading this first "Life" of the gifted writer Iris Murdoch. It's not that Peter Conradi isn't qualified to write about his subject. English Professor Emeritus at the University of Kingston, he was a friend of Murdoch's and was given access to journals, letters, papers and friends. He edited her non-fiction collection, Existentialists and Mystics and his study of her fiction, The Saint And The Artist, is now in its third edition.

Neither is this one of those dig-the-dirt exercises that has become popular in recent years and so discredited the genre. True, he does portray the young Iris as confused by a diffuse and generous sexual energy and reveals a lesbian passion and bit of S & M in her past, dutifully reporting her joy in these violent sexual gambits (usually in an armchair, with the man's wife in the kitchen preparing supper for them both). But his attention to such matters is never salacious and his affection for, and admiration of, his subject is unwavering: "Her friendship," he writes, "ennobled you."

This is a book in two parts: the better half is the second, where Conradi treats the novels to a Buddhist reading that is intelligent and illuminating. (He is a Buddhist who found his faith after listening to Murdoch lecture on natural theology). However, much of this material has been covered already, and at greater length, in The Saint and the Artist.

When he's writing about her life, he is far less assured, determined to include every single finding he's unearthed in his exhaustive research. As the details of home and school and interests and friendships pile up without selection, never mind discrimination, Iris Murdoch sinks beneath them.

The bare facts of her life are as follows: She was born in 1919 in Blessington Street in Dublin, the adored only child of a happily married Irish couple. She grew up in London, studied at Oxford, worked as a civil servant during World War II, taught briefly at Cambridge and then settled in Oxford in 1948 to lecture in philosophy. She wrote several fictions before publishing Under the Net in 1954, going on to write 26 published novels, several plays and books of philosophy and ethics.

In 1956 she married John Bayley, the academic, writer and critic. She was made an honorary fellow of St Anne's College Oxford in 1963 and a Dame of the British Empire in 1987. She died from Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 80 and her two-year descent into oblivion was described movingly, if intrusively, by her bereaved husband in Elegy for Iris.

Conradi makes much of Murdoch's Irish background, a family history that she mythologized much in the manner of WB Yeats, cherishing her distant links with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. She had a slight `brogue', which she relished; as late as 1964 she would argue crossly (and implausibly) that she had an Irish accent "you could cut with a knife." In The Red and the Green she wrote that England destroyed Ireland, "without malice, without mercy, practically without thought, like someone who treads upon an insect," but her loyalties swung from being a romantic, Marxist nationalist in her youth to a hard-line unionist in later life.

An engaging and thought-provoking philosopher, (whose question was not so much Aristotle's `What kind of person should one be?' as `How should one see?') it is for her novels that Murdoch is best known. These works have elicited wildly various critical interpretations over the years. The plots are complex, involving innumerable characters in a variety of extraordinary configurations and circumstances. Murdoch views humans as purportedly free but actually constricted by boundaries of self, society and nature, their apprehension of `free will' only an illusion. Her characters tend to be cerebral, with some of the grandiosity and high purpose that characters in Victorian novels had, their lives crammed with moral furniture.

What is most valuable about this biography is the way it shows that the eccentric, almost batty, English characters in Murdoch's books and their stylised, artificial situations - so much outside time and fashion that they seem almost mythic - are in fact often drawn from her experience. As she put in a letter to a friend "real life is so much odder than any book".

But overall Conradi is unequal to the task he has set himself. He never confronts the inconsistencies in her nature. Just as she swung violently on "the Irish question", Murdoch became a bit of prude in later years, with "no memory of her own bohemianism," Conradi tells us, as if that was explanation enough. Another tendency is to gloss over troublesome issues with a fuzzy, New Age transcendentalism. The criticism of John Bayley for revealing troublingly intimate details about this most private woman is answered thus: "Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara see the Bodhisattva as willing to be, according to the various needs of the Other, like a bridge, a boat, or a road - whatever the situation requires." This isn't just avoidance, it's typical of the woolly thinking that mars this work throughout.

But the worst flaw is the burden of detail. To Murdoch's question - "What is there to say about me?" - this book answers: lots and lots and lots. The pity is that in trying to say it all, it ends up telling so little.


George Eliot: A Life
George Eliot: A Life
by Rosemary Ashton
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Meticulously documented and very readable, 30 Oct 2012
This review is from: George Eliot: A Life (Paperback)
George Eliot, who was still alive when falsehood began to circulate about her past, shuddered at the thought of what biographers would do to her after her death. "Is it not odious", she asked, referring to a `Life Of Dickens', "that as soon as a man is dead his desk is raked and every insignificant memorandum which he never meant for the public is printed for the gossiping amusement of people too idle to re-read his books?"

She knew she had given the biographers plenty of material on which to do their worst - by rejecting religion, by living a bohemian London life as a single woman, by openly cohabitating with the married George Lewes for years, and by marrying John Cross, a man nearly 20 years her junior, after Lewes's death.

Rosemary Ashton's book however, is not that kind of biography. She analyses thoroughly the life experiences that accompanied Eliot's many name changes - the young provincial Mary Anne Evans, the bohemian free thinker Marian Evans, the scandalous Marian Lewes, the writer George Eliot, and the remarried Mary Ann Cross - and makes obvious her admiration for the woman. But she is most engaged by the writer.

Which is as it should be. Writing was the centre of Eliot's life, a fact often ignored in earlier biographies more concerned with her sexual and social misdemeanours. What is most interesting about her relationship with George Lewes is not that they never married, but the way in which he played midwife to her books: encouraging her to write fiction, guarding her from the criticism that shrivelled her writing confidence, providing the loving background that allowed her genius to flower.

Ashton is an illuminating interpreter of Eliot's work, carefully contextualising her life and intellectual influences. She places her within the literary milieu of the 19th century, discussing at length her relationship to other authors. Also treated are her intellectual and social relations with those great and good Victorians with whom she had most contact - Darwin, Huxley, Tennyson, Browning and the radical and feminist women who, for years, were the only females to associate with her.

As the only Victorian woman writer who rejects society's strictures, George Eliot has always been a bit of a feminist icon. What this biography makes clear, however, is that she was an unwilling rebel, and longed for the approval of those she loved and the admiration of society. But not enough to compromise what she believed to be right or true. "This paradox," says Ashton, "a tension between the urge to criticise, and if necessary to rebel against established ideas and practices, and the counter-urge to belong securely in the family and social group, is at the heart of George Eliot's life in all its stages." And it informs her novels too.

Unsurprisingly, having lived such an unconventional life, on her death the rumours began to fly, especially about her final years. It was said, for example, that while going through Lewes's papers after his death, she had discovered evidence that he had been unfaithful. Ashton quashes such speculation, attributing the rumour to its source. But the events of this stage of Eliot's life raise compelling questions. Why did she marry Cross, a man utterly unlike her beloved Lewes and in no way her intellectual equal? Why did he jump into the grand canal in Venice on their honeymoon? Was there madness in Cross's family? Did Eliot come to think him mad and never recover from the dreadful depression that followed as some claimed?

At this part of the biography, Georg Eliot slips from view. We long to know more, but are left wondering. The sources are not there and the questions are therefore, for a biographer like Ashton, unanswerable. She quotes Charles, Lewes's son, as saying that Eliot had explained her marriage by intimating that it was her human feelings and failings which enabled her to write her books. "This explanation which was good enough for Charles," chivvies Ashton, "should be good enough for us". She refuses to offer educated guesses, psychoanalytic interpretations, maybes or perhapses.

What she gives instead is a scholarly, meticulously documented yet readable Life, which is not a substitute for reading the books, but rather an enticement to explore them. I imagine that even its biography-shy subject would have to acknowledge its worth.


The Red King's Dream: Lewis Carroll in Wonderland
The Red King's Dream: Lewis Carroll in Wonderland
by J.Francis Gladstone
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Trying To Answer What Should Never Be Asked, 30 Oct 2012
In the 1860s, a don at Christ Church College, Oxford, the Reverend Charles Dodgson, wrote two masterpieces for children, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. The lunatic, anarchic world of the Alice books and their topsy-turvy nonsense have inspired delight in generations of children and adults.

The Red King's Dream claims that Dodgson's entertaining nonsense was, in fact, cunningly disguised satire, that each Wonderland character represents a real Victorian person, known to or photographed by the amateur photographer Dodgson, and caricatured by him in the Alice books for their beliefs or behaviour.

One of the authors is a grandson of Gladstone, the 19th-century liberal Prime Minister best known in Ireland for his support of Home Rule, and the book opens with the assertion that the Lion and the Unicorn section of The Looking Glass represents a political battle in which Gladstone lost his Oxford seat and was "drummed out of town". The authors are not the first to suggest that there are connections between Victorian events and Wonderland, and they acknowledge the work of Martin Gardner, who first proposed the possibility of Gladstone and Disraeli as models for the Lion and the Unicorn, in The Annotated Alice. Their book suffers by the comparison.

Gardner - a mathematician like Dodgson - guided the reader through Alice's complexities at many levels, with logic puzzles, word games, historical and political context, but all the while remained true to the book's contrary, lunatic spirit. And Gardner's suggestions are tentatively made. In contrast, The Red King's Dream sets out to prove its assertions and becomes less and less convincing as the "proofs" pile up.

Take its first premise: that Gladstone was the Unicorn. The reasons given for this conclusion are as follows: the artist John Tenniel commissioned by Carroll to illustrate Alice was a political cartoonist who had "made many caricatures of Gladstone and Disraeli"; Carroll had sent Gladstone a pamphlet on proportional representation; and "the thrust of the Unicorn's horn and his impatience with Alice... seemed like Gladstone in one of his more imperious moods".

With this dubious "proof" in hand, they are off. "If Mr Gladstone was there, what about others mentioned in Carroll's diaries, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, for example, the poet Tennyson, or John Ruskin?"

And with a great many probablys and perhapses, maybes and surelys, they convince themselves that Tennyson is the White Knight (he had a house on the Isle of Wight) and the Tennyson sons, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Carrol photographed them dressed alike as twins and they were known to be argumentative), that Ruskin is the Gryphon (he did drawings of griffins), that Charles Kingsley is the Mad Hatter (in a likeness he look "as if, given half a chance, he might show off at any minute, like the Mad Hatter") and so on. And on. This reader was not convinced.

That said, the book is valuable for its insight into the political intellectual and religious controversies that racked Oxford during Carroll's time. Its evocation of Victorian attitudes and concerns is brilliant and it reveals how Charles Dodgson was torn by the intellectual conflict of the day, a conflict epitomised by the Oxford debate in which biologist T.H. Huxley argued the theory of evolution against Bishop Wilberforce, and won.

Dodgson as a conservative cleric held a Biblical world view, but as Lewis Carroll he created an anarchic, out-of-control world with no such comforting sense of order. In that sense the claim made by The Red King's Dream, that Carroll's feelings about the moral and intellectual climate of his day are concealed in this story "told on the river to his favourite child-friend", has basis.

But to extrapolate as closely as the authors do from the events of the day to the incidents in the books is completely contrary to the spirit of Alice. The meticulous research; the detailed over-interpretation of the text; the earnest arguments and sober erudition, all would be admirable in another context, but when applied to the waywardness of wonderland, completely miss the mark.

Alice's warning to the Mad Hatter "I think you might do something better with the time than waste it asking riddles with no answers" is applicable here. The attempt of these authors to answer what should never be asked is doomed.


Promiscuities
Promiscuities
by Naomi Wolf
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Regurgitation of Feminist Basics, 30 Oct 2012
This review is from: Promiscuities (Hardcover)
Naomi Wolf is "the most controversial feminist of her generation", the jacket blurb on her new book tells us. Many feminists have long suspected her of being the most conservative and this book will confirm those suspicions.

That is not to say that Wolf is not a committed feminist thinker. She sees her "controversial" standing on many feminist issues as proof not only of her discernment but of her engagement: "Taking a critical look at one's own cherished movement is an act not sacrilege but of love", she has said. But her more questionable assertions - that abortion is an evil that demands atonement, for example, or that patriarchy is ready to roll over and die if women would only discover the power within - are born not of an acute critical faculty which detects the part other feminists cannot reach, but of a naivity which is insensitive to context and which reduces complexity and multiplicity to the simple and one dimensional.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in this book which deals with female sexuality a subject that demands a creativity and fluidity of thought which is alien to Wolf. In it she describes what she found when she went home to San Francisco and asked some school friends to help her "what it was like to grow up sexually when we did and how we did".

From the experience of these girls who became women in "a time that was permissive but still not free", Wolf tells us, she "will explore the nature of female desire". A tall order, and this book does no such thing. What it does explore is aspects of her own unfolding sexuality, and that of her friends, all white, more or less middle-class and all, apart from Genevieve who "always thought of other girls romantically" and Tonya who has a lesbian fling, straight.

The storytelling parts of the book are the most successful, particularly Wolf's portrayal of pre-adolescent freedom and the anguish of adolesence and sexual experimentation. It is in her efforts to extrapolate from personal experiences to wider issues that she runs into problems.

For a start there's the non-stop stating of the obvious; at the end of 240 pages we have learned the following: that women are divided by a good girl / bad girl split into ladies and tramps; that sex is not just a source of pleasure for women but a source of danger too; and that in Western culture women are bombarded with messages about performing sex in a way that is pleasing to men rather than pursuing their own desires.

These (foregone) conclusions are presented in an accessible style, but from somebody dubbed "the leading feminist of her generation", is it not reasonable to expect more? Another problem is her frequent lapses into fuzzy thought. To quote one of many such passages: "... we were somehow going to find a way, through whatever struggle it might take, to determine the meaning of `becoming a woman' for ourselves. And all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, did indeed find our various ways through - not all the way to where we wanted to be; but closer". What does this mean?

But the most fundamental flaw of this book is the shockingly narrow conceptualisation of sexuality, with the assumptions of what Janice Raymond terms "heteropatriarchy" barely nudged, never mind challenged. It is as if writers like Adrienne Rich or Audre Lorde or Angela Carter had never spoken.

Can we make things better for our own daughters, Wolf asks, and her answer is yes: "We can teach [them] that shame belongs to the act of abusing or devaluing female sexuality, not to that sexuality itself". But the overwhelming question that has troubled feminism, the quest which this book barely grapples with, is: how? If, as psychologists tell us, the sexual response is fixed in early adolescence or before, how can girls and young women be enabled to see beyond the bombardment of warped messages from a hostile culture?

Wolf's great strength is her ability to popularise ideas. If you are somebody who has never thought about the social construction of sexuality, somebody who has remained ignorant of feminist thought on the subject, you may learn from this book. If you are the mother of a teenage daughter, you may find asking her to read it will provoke some interesting discussion. But if you are looking for more than a regurgitation of (some) feminist basics, you will be disappointed.


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